W.C. 1873-1958 Handy

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(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

W. C. Handy 1873-1958

(Full name William Christopher Handy) American composer, autobiographer, editor, and nonfiction writer.

The self-proclaimed “Father of the Blues,” Handy was the celebrated composer of the blues classic “St. Louis Blues” (1914). A well-known performer and bandleader, Handy wrote “Memphis Blues” (1912), one of the first published songs in the blues genre, which features musical laments and mournful jazz improvisations derived from African-American folk music. In all, Handy published some 150 spirituals, blues, and folk songs. Additionally, Handy edited two works on the Harlem Renaissance, The Blues: An Anthology (1926) and Book of Negro Spirituals (1938), and wrote a noted autobiography, Father of the Blues (1941).

Biographical Information

Handy was born in Florence, Alabama, where he attended the Florence District School for Negroes for eleven years. As a child Handy secretly purchased a guitar, but when his disapproving father, a Methodist minister, discovered the instrument, he forced Handy to return it. The two came to a compromise, and Handy was allowed to study the organ; meanwhile, he clandestinely learned to play the cornet. By the age of fifteen, Handy was touring with a minstrel troupe. After determining to become a music teacher, he enrolled at the all-black Agricultural and Mechanical College in Huntsville, Alabama. Handy completed his studies in 1892, only to realize that he could make more money as a day-laborer; he found work in a pipe works and performed other odd jobs while pursing music independently. By 1896, however, he had landed a job in Chicago as a cornetist and arranger for W. A. Mahara's Minstrels. He taught music in Huntsville between 1900 and 1902, then began to tour the South again with his band. In 1908 Handy and the singer/lyricist Harry H. Pace formed the Pace and Handy Music Company. The following year, he composed what was to become his first published blues song. Originally entitled “Mr. Crump,” the song was written for the Memphis mayoral campaign of Edward H. Crump. Later, when Handy sought a publisher for the work, its title was changed to “Memphis Blues.” He eventually succeeded in 1912, selling the song copyright for $50. The work proved a modest success and was followed by Handy's breakthrough piece, “St. Louis Blues,” which earned him nationwide recognition in 1914. Many more blues arrangements followed. Meanwhile, Handy and his partner moved the Pace and Handy Music Company to Chicago and then to New York City in 1918. The company's songs were popular but earned disappointing financial rewards until blues music began to grow in popularity by the mid-1920s. During this time, Handy was increasingly troubled by failing eyesight, although this had little effect on his accelerating career. He edited Blues: An Anthology in 1926, and in 1931 the now-celebrated musician was honored in Memphis, Tennessee, with the construction of W. C. Handy Park. He published his autobiography Father of the Blues in 1941. In his later years Handy's temporary bouts with blindness became permanent. The well-known entertainer continued to perform when possible until his death in 1958.

Major Works

Handy cannot be credited with the invention of blues music; the genre instead had its origins...

(The entire section is 762 words.)