W.C. 1873-1958 Handy Essay - Critical Essays

Handy, W.C. 1873-1958


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 in woeful black folk-songs that were being performed in New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta region long before Handy's compositions. Nevertheless, as a blues composer and performer, Handy wrote a number of popular songs using a twelve-bar pattern and three-line verses of melancholy lyrics; Handy's famous blues song “St. Louis Blues” began with the lyric “I hate to see de evenin' sun go down.” Musically, the form contains flat third and seventh notes—called “blues” notes—and features so-called musical breaks, which allow for improvisation and other variation. In addition to Handy's many compositions, he edited Blues: An Anthology, a significant document concerning Harlem Renaissance musicians. Handy's autobiography Father of the Blues recounts the details of his life and the development of his career, as well as describing black-white relations in America at the turn of the century. His other short nonfictional works on African-American music include Negro Authors and Composers of the United States (1936) and Unsung Americans Sung (1944).

Critical Reception

Commentators have acknowledged that Handy's long and difficult rise to success as a blues composer culminated in a significant infusion of African-American folk music into mainstream culture. Both a popularizer and a musical innovator, Handy is regarded as a seminal figure rather than an inventor of the genre, which is derived from older sources. Still, critics consider his “St. Louis Blues” a masterpiece of popular music. And while some dispute the appellation “Father of the Blues”—notable among them, Handy's rival Jelly Roll Morton—most regard him as one of the great figures of American music.

Principal Works

The Blues: An Anthology [editor] (nonfiction) 1926

Negro Authors and Composers of the United States (nonfiction) 1936

Book of Negro Spirituals [editor] (nonfiction) 1938

Father of the Blues (autobiography) 1941

Unsung Americans Sung (nonfiction) 1944


Jelly Roll Morton (essay date 1938)

SOURCE: “I Created Jazz in 1902, Not W. C. Handy,” in Down Beat, Vol. 61, No. 7, July, 1994, pp. 10, 12-13.

[In the following essay, originally composed in 1938, Morton claims that blues music predates both himself and W. C. Handy, and maintains that he—rather than Handy—was the originator of jazz.]

Dear Mr. Ripley:

For many years I have been a constant reader of your (Believe It or Not) cartoon. I have listened to your broadcast with keen interest. I frankly believe your work is a great contribution to natural science.

In your broadcast of March 26, 1938, you introduced W. C. Handy as the originator of jazz, stomps, and blues. By this announcement you have done me a great injustice, and you have also misled many of your fans.

It is evidently known, beyond contradiction, that New Orleans is the cradle of jazz, and I, myself, happened to be creator in the year 1902, many years before the Dixieland Band organized. Jazz music is a style, not compositions; any kind of music may be played in jazz, if one has the knowledge. The first stomp was written in 1906, namely “King Porter Stomp.” “Georgia Swing” was the first to be named swing in 1907. You may be informed by leading recording companies. “New Orleans Blues” was written in 1905, the same year “Jelly Roll Blues” was mapped out, but not published at that time. New Orleans was the headquarters for the greatest Ragtime musicians on earth. There was more work than musicians. Everyone had their individual style. My style seemed to be the attraction. I decided to travel, and tried Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, and many other states during 1903-'04, and was accepted as sensational.

In the year of 1908, I was brought to Memphis by a small theatre owner, Fred Barasso, as a feature attraction and to be with his number-one company for his circuit, which consisted of four houses, namely Memphis, Tenn., Greenville, Vicksburg, and Jackson, Miss. That was the birth of the Negro theatrical circuit in the U.S.A. It was that year I met Handy in Memphis. I learned that he had just arrived from his home town, Henderson, Ky. He was introduced to me as Prof. Handy. Who ever heard of anyone wearing the name of Professor advocate ragtime, jazz, stomps, blues, etc.? Of course Handy could not play either of these types, and I can assure you he has never learned them as yet (meaning freak tunes, plenty of finger work in the groove of harmonies, great improvisations, accurate, exciting tempos with a kick). I know Mr. Handy's ability, and it is the type of folk songs, hymns, anthems, etc. If you believe I am wrong, challenge his ability.

Prof. Handy and his band played several days a week at a colored amusement park in Memphis, namely, Dixie Park. Guy Williams, a guitarist, worked in the band in 1911. He had a blues tune he wrote, called “Jogo Blues.” This tune was published by Pace and Handy under the same title, and later changed to “St. Louis Blues.” Williams has no copyright as yet. In 1912 I happened to be in Texas, and one of my fellow musicians brought me a number to play—“Memphis Blues.” The minute I started playing it, I recognized it. I said to James Milles, the one who presented it to me (trombonist, still in Houston, playing with me at that time), “The first strain is a Black Butts' strain all ‘dressed up.’” Butts was strictly blues (or what they call a Boogie Woogie player) I said the second strain was mine. I practically assembled the tune. The last strain was Tony Jackson's strain, Whoa B-Whoa. At that time no one knew the meaning of the word jazz or stomps but me. This also added a new word to the dictionary, which they gave the wrong definition. The word blues was known to everyone. For instance, when I was eight or nine years of age, I heard blues tunes entitled “Alice Fields,” “Isn't It Hard To Love,” “Make Me A Palate [sic] On The Floor”—the latter which I played myself on my guitar. Handy also retitled his catalogue “Atlanta Blues.” Mr. Handy cannot prove anything is music that he has created. He has possibly taken advantage of some unprotected material that sometimes floats around. I would like to know how a person could be an originator of anything, without being able to do at least some of what they created.

I still claim that jazz hasn't gotten to its peak as yet. I may be the only perfect specimen today in jazz that's living. It may be because of my contributions, that gives me authority...

(The entire section is 1914 words.)

David Ewen (essay date 1944)

SOURCE: “W. C. Handy,” in Men of Popular Music, Ziff-Davis Publishing Company, 1944, pp. 65-76.

[In the following essay, Ewen summarizes the blues technique employed by Handy, recounts the musician's life, and calls his “St. Louis Blues” “one of the undisputed masterpieces in our popular music.”]

To the texture of what soon was to be known as jazz had been added the element of ragtime. Other elements in harmonic and melodic color and in tonality were to be contributed by the blues of W. C. Handy. For years before Handy wrote his classics, “The Memphis Blues” and the “St. Louis Blues,” music similar in general character to the later blues had been in...

(The entire section is 3356 words.)

George W. Kay (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: “William Christopher Handy, Father of the Blues,” in Jazz Journal, Vol. 24, No. 3, March, 1971, pp. 10-12.

[In the following essay, Kay examines the early publication history of blues songs other than Handy's, but concludes that “the greatness of William Christopher Handy remains unchallenged.”]

The place was a Harlem Baptist Church. The time was Wednesday afternoon, April 2, 1958. A trumpet solo to his favourite hymn Holy City, played by jazz trumpeter Cootie Williams, closed the funeral service for William Christopher Handy, 84, internationally acclaimed ‘Father of the Blues’.

From his pulpit, Reverend Adam Clayton Powell,...

(The entire section is 2633 words.)

Thadious M. Davis (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “From Jazz Syncopation to Blues Elegy: Faulkner's Development of Black Characterization,” in Faulkner and Race, edited by Doreen Fowler and Ann J. Abadie, University Press of Mississippi, 1987, pp. 70-92.

[In the following essay, Davis investigates the influence of Handy's music on William Faulkner's characterization of blacks in his novels.]

Listening to W. C. Handy's 1916 blues song “Ole Miss,” recorded by jazz pianist James P. Johnson in 1922, I am reminded of the way in which blues and jazz intermingled in the music of that period. Southern-born Handy, called “the father of the blues,” and Northern-born Johnson, father of the hot piano, did not...

(The entire section is 7789 words.)

Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “‘They Cert'ly Sound Good to Me’: Sheet Music, Southern Vaudeville, and the Commercial Ascendancy of the Blues,” in American Music, Vol. 14, No. 4, Winter, 1996, pp. 402-54.

[In the following essay, Abbott and Seroff trace the origins of blues music in southern vaudeville and consider the growth of popular blues.]

The era of popular blues music was not suddenly set into motion by Mamie Smith's 1920 recording of “Crazy Blues.” By the time Mamie Smith was allowed to walk into a commercial recording studio, the blues was an American entertainment institution with an abounding legendry and a firmly established father figure. The history of the...

(The entire section is 21158 words.)

Carol B. Gartner (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “Faulkner in Context: Seeing ‘That Evening Sun’ Through the Blues,” in The Southern Quarterly, Vol. XXXIV, No. 2, Winter, 1996, pp. 50-58.

[In the following essay, Gartner explores William Faulkner's portrait of a blues singer in “That Evening Sun Go Down” in the contexts of Handy's “St. Louis Blues.”]

When Faulkner published “That Evening Sun Go Down” in the Spring 1931 American Mercury, his readers would have immediately recognized the reference to W. C. Handy's “St. Louis Blues.” When the story appeared that fall with the shorter title, “That Evening Sun,” in Faulkner's first short-story collection, readers must still have...

(The entire section is 5560 words.)

Further Reading


Aschmann, Charles O., Jr. Review of Blues: An Anthology, edited by W. C. Handy. The Reprint Bulletin: Book Reviews XXXII, No. 1 (1987): 10.

Positive assessment of Handy's historical and critical anthology of blues music.

Edmonds, Anthony O. Review of Father of the Blues. The Reprint Bulletin: Book Reviews XXX, No. 3 (March 1985): 54.

Mentions the significance of Handy's autobiography as a social history of black-white relations.

Palmer, Robert. Deep Blues. New York: Viking Press, 1981, 310 p.

Study of blues music history; includes a...

(The entire section is 82 words.)