|Young man with a horn--W.C. Handy and his coronet at age 19 already a lead player in a touring Black brass band. |
William Christopher Handy was born on November 16, 1873 in a log cabin in Florence, Alabama. It is safe to say that W.C. Handy almost single handedly changed the face and sound of virtually every genre of popular American music by introducing—and some say inventing—the blues as a performer, band leader, folklorist, composer, publisher, business man, mentor, and author. His cultural importance would be almost impossible to underestimate.
Handy’s father was a respected African Methodist Episcopal minister. Although he had a close relationship with his son, his strong religious beliefs led him to oppose the early interest that the boy showed in “shameless, worldly” music. Using money he saved doing odd jobs while serving informal apprenticeships with local Black craftsmen, Handy bought a guitar, the popular instrument of the “field pickers” and laborers. His father ordered him to return the instrument and enrolled him in organ classes instead so that he could play sacred music.
Not to be deterred Handy obtained a coronet and learned to play it by practicing in woods and barns. He joined one of the popular Black brass bands of the era and was soon playing across Alabama on weekends. During the week he continued to work at various often back breaking jobs as a laborer. He picked up, and with a remarkable memory, retained many of the field chants, call and response songs, and incidental music with which his fellows passed the time. He noted while shoveling coal into the boiler of a local factory that his fellows would make complex and unusual rhythms by banging their shovels and scraping them on the furnace door to create tones.
Handy quit an unsuccessful stint as a teacher because he could make more money in the steel mills and factories of Bessemer. In his spare time, he organized first a string band and then the Lauzetta Quartet which began to get local attention. Determined to quit his day job Handy and the Quartet made their way to Chicago playing barrel houses and juke joints along the way hoping to find work in or around the Columbian Exhibition. He got to the city only to learn that construction delays had pushed the opening back a full year to 1893. The band then went to St. Louis and finally to Evansville, Indiana, where it broke up. But along the way Handy and his group were the first to play blues, or blues like music in northern commercial venues.
After returning to Chicago to play cornet when the Fair did open, Handy found steady employment with a successful Evansville based touring band with which he played for a few years. Along the way he met his wife Elizabeth Price in Henderson, Kentucky and married her in 1896. His career got a boost the same year when the 23 year old musician got a job a band leader with Mahara’s Minstrels, a touring show of Black performers—as opposed to the blackface shows of white performers. He toured with the troupe from Chicago, through Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida on to Cuba for the princely sum of $6 a week.
In 1900 Handy and his wife settled in Huntsville, near his boyhood home of Florence. She gave birth to the first of six children, and he found a job as professor of music and band director at the Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College for Negroes, one of only two schools of higher education for Blacks in Alabama, the other being Tuskegee Institute. College President William Hooper Councill was glad to find a musician of Handy’s stature who could not only read and notate music, but demonstrated an advanced grasp of musical theory. Despite the prestige of the appointment and his wife’s hope for a stable home life, Handy soon clashed with Councill over the introduction of Black musical idiom into the curriculum and the programs of the Band. Councill thought the music “primitive and degrading” and believed that Blacks would elevate themselves in the eyes of the White establishment by learning and performing European classical music. There was also the consideration that life as a touring musician simply paid better. After two years, Handy quit the school and resumed touring with Mahara’s Minstrels.
In 1903 Handy took a job as director of the Knights of Pythias—a Black band not to be confused with the fraternal organization—which toured the South from its base in Clarksville, Mississippi. He toured with the band for six years, all the while noting and collecting folk songs and styles he heard along the way. One of his most important discoveries was hearing a field hand use a knife blade as a slide on his guitar in the “Hawaiian style” to produce remarkable “bent notes.” Noting that he was playing in “G”, a key seldom used in European music, Handy picked out the blue notes—flat thirds and sevenths that became the basis of the blues sound. From a string band that took the stage with him during a 1905 performance in Cleveland, Mississippi he picked up on a heavily rhythmic, repeating refrain that seemed to be “…haunted by the cane rows and fields.” Handy began to add these elements to the songs that he was writing.
In 1909 Handy and his band relocated to Memphis, Tennessee the informal capital of the Mississippi Delta. He found a receptive home for his new sound in the joints and dives of Beale Street. That year he was paid a few dollars to compose a campaign song for Memphis mayoral candidate Edward Crump. It must have been a hell of a song because Crump went on to the longtime mayor and the boss of a notorious political machine. Handy liked the basic tune of the little march ditty, but reworked with those blue notes, field rhythms, and call and response structure. The result was the Memphis Blues, which soon became wildly popular in the region. In 1912 he sold the publishing rights of the song for $100. The sheet music became a huge hit and introduced the “twelve-bar blues” to parlors all over the country. In New York the vaudeville dancers Verne and Irene Castle devised a new dance, the Fox Trot to take advantage of the song’s rapid pace and shifting, irregular rhythms. Several early recordings were made, usually as band instrumentals.
By 1914 at the age of 40, Handy was actually becoming famous as a composer. Although at first he sometimes struggled to get his work published and was dissatisfied with the low prices paid for signing away all rights to his work, the songs were spreading rapidly among both his Black southern audience and by White singers and performers. And other composers were quick to pick up on Handy’s style and techniques. The blues were rapidly becoming a recognized genre. To take advantage of this Handy wrote furiously and toured more successfully with his band, now renamed the W. C. Handy Memphis Orchestra. Within a few years he had produced his most famous songs including Beale Street Blues and St. Louis Blues.
Tired of seeing his publishing profits enrich others, Handy became his own publisher in association with Harry H. Pace, a young graduate of Atlanta University and a student of W. E. B. Dubois. In 1917 they decided to move the company to New York City to take advantage of the ability to sell the songs to orchestras, theater, vaudeville, and the growing recording industry.
Sometimes Handy was shocked and unsure of the directions his compositions were taking. 1917 was also the year that the Original Dixieland Jass Band, a white New Orleans band, made what is regarded to be the very first jazz record, introducing jazz music to a wide segment of the American public. Soon many other bands were recording, including the great early black bands like the one led by King Oliver. The New Orleans jazzmen were quick to use Handy’s blues compositions as the basis for their improvisations. Initially, Handy disapproved fearing that the core of the folk-rooted music had been corrupted. But he grew to appreciate, over time, this new thing called jazz as a natural outgrowth of his work.
Handy was also surprised by how quickly white artists, particularly band leaders looking for novelty songs and new dance music, were picking up the music and spreading it widely. Al Bernard was a young white singer whose soft southern accent was perfect for Handy’s music. He took the young man to Thomas Edison who recorded Bernard singing several of Handy’s creations. When Bernard began writing his own blues, Handy was glad to publish the songs including a tune called Shake, Rattle and Roll, not to be confused by the later blues and rock and roll song recorded by Big Joe Turner and Bill Haley and the Comets. Handy also published songs by Madelyn Sheppard and Annelu Burns, two “young white girls from Selma” The catalog of songs by Handy, other Black composers as well as the white-aping-black pieces became central to the emerging repertoire for black artists on record and on the segregated vaudeville circuit.
By 1919 Handy recognized that Edison was not the best possible company with which to place his songs. Not only was Edison personally musically tone deaf, he disapproved of the “wild new styles” and instructed his artists to record songs “straight.” He also notoriously did not pay well and his business methods and distribution models were passé. That year Handy signed with Victor, the emerging titan of the recording industry. On that label Joe Smith’s recording of Yellow Dog Blues became one of the first hit records in a modern sense of being mass produced and nationally marketed.
In 1920 Mamie Smith recorded Crazy Blues, a tune written by Perry Bradford but published and promoted by Handy. The success of that record “set off a craze for Colored girl blues singers.” Unfortunately many of these singers did not record from Handy’s catalog sending his business into a tail spin. When Harry Pace left the company to set up his own publishing business and Black Swan Records, he took much of Handy’s business with him. Handy’s own attempt to launch a record label in the mid-1920’s, the Handy Record Company, was less successful than the company launched by his former partner. Despite remaining on friendly terms with Pace, Handy complained that people thought he associated with Black Swan.
Handy’s reputation got a big boost in 1925 when Columbia Records released Bessie Smith singing St. Louis Blues with accompaniment by Louis Armstrong. It became the definitive blues recording of the decade and made Smith a huge star. In 1928 Handy collaborated with director Kenneth W. Adams to produce a dramatic short film with Smith singing the St. Louis Blues. The film was so successful that it continued to be run in Black movie houses for four years.
The ‘20’s also saw Handy establish himself as a scholar and folklorist of the blues. In 1926 he published Blues: An Anthology—Complete Words and Music of 53 Great Songs, the first comprehensive study of the genre. Not only did he preserve the words and music, he gave detailed descriptions of how he found songs in the field and how he incorporated themes, shouts, rhythms, and other elements into his own “composed” songs. In doing so he acknowledged a great cultural debt.
In the late 1920’s blues recordings and music from the Delta itself, where traditional musicians had adopted many of Handy’s sophisticated innovations, were also beginning to percolate into White Hillbilly music with recordings by Jimmie Rodgers (the Mississippi Blue Yodeler) and other performers. It became foundational to modern country music. By the 1950’s Handy would live long enough to see his beloved rural southern blues link with blues tinged country music in his own town of Memphis to help create modern rock and roll.
Handy went on to write four more books, considered indispensable classics to this day: the Book of Negro Spirituals, Father of the Blues: An Autobiography, Unsung Americans Sing, and Negro Authors and Composers of the United States. He was much honored in the rest of his life and sometimes took to the stage with his old cornet for special appearances with the likes of Cab Callaway. He was honored when Memphis named a street for him and preserved his old home there as a museum.
In 1943 Handy was blinded in a fall in the New York Subway. He was fully conscious of the irony of becoming like the blind country blues singers he encountered at the turn of the Century supporting themselves with handouts for their shouts and moans. After his first wife died in 1947 he married his long time secretary, who had become his eyes and ears. He suffered a stroke in 1955 but felt well enough to attend an 84th birthday party a year later at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel attended by 800 admirers including many of the greatest names in music.
Handy died of pneumonia on March 28, 1958 in New York City. 25,000 tried to attend his funeral at Adam Clayton Powell's Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Hundreds of others lined the streets to watch the hearse carry his body to Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.