While W.C. Handy didn’t invent the blues, he most certainly helped propel it to wider audiences. Today is the composer and “Father of the Blues’ birthday.
William Christopher Handy was born November 16, 1873 in Florence, Ala. Growing up in a deeply religious household, Handy was forbidden from playing and listening to secular music but the pull of it was too strong. His pastor father eventually agreed to let him take organ lessons.
Abandoning the instrument and learning how to play the cornet, Handy went off on his own before studying to become a teacher at the Teachers Agriculture and Mechanical College in Huntsville, Ala.
Teaching didn’t last long and wanderlust set in. Handy traveled to St. Louis, Mo. to kick start his career but at first dealt with poverty and hardship. However, his ability on the cornet earned him gigs across the country. In Kentucky, he met his wife Elizabeth Price and embarked upon a journey of studying Black musical traditions across the South.
After briefly returning to teaching , Handy landed in Memphis, Tenn., studying variations of blues played at the time. He became a fixture on the famous Beale Street corridor and in 1909, a campaign song he wrote for mayoral candidate Edward “Boss” Crump titled “Mr. Crump” formed the basis of his first big hit, “Memphis Blues” released in 1912. Two years later, he scored another hit in “St. Louis Blues,” a biographical tune that detailed his hard times in the city.
Handy moved to New York in 1918 to escape racism and had another big hit with “Aunt Hagar’s Blues” promoting the blues to taste makers of the era. In 1926, Handy edited Blues: An Anthology and helped organize the first blues concert at New York’s famed Carnegie Hall.
As a composer, Handy crafted dozens of works and even released books such as W.C. Handy’s Collection of Negro Spirituals and Negro Authors and Composers of the United States. In 1941, he published a biography titled Father Of The Blues but his output was slowed after this point after a skull injury left him partially blind.
Handy lived long enough to see some of his compositions played by rising blues musicians of the era. He passed in 1958 at the age of 84 after battling pneumonia.
PHOTO: Public Domain
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