W.C. Handy - Songs, Quotes & Facts (2024)

(1873-1958)

Who Was W.C. Handy?

W.C. Handy played with several bands and traveled throughout the Midwest and the South, learning about the African American folk music that would become known as the blues. Handy later composed his own songs — including "St. Louis Blues," "Memphis Blues" and "Aunt Hagar's Blues" — which would help popularize the form and come to be major commercial hits.

Early Life

Composer, musician and music publisher William Christopher Handy was born on November 16, 1873, in Florence, Alabama, to Elizabeth Brewer and Charles Barnard Handy. The son and grandson of Methodist ministers, the young Handy showed his love of music at an early age, and was supported in his pursuits by his maternal grandmother. His father had other ideas, however, and was staunchly opposed to secular musicianship for his son, only agreeing to pay for organ lessons. Nonetheless, Handy held fast to his love and took up the cornet, also enjoying a cappella vocal lessons at school.

Some reports say that Handy joined a minstrel show — a theatrical production of the time that featured African American music, generally in caricatured form — at the age of 15. The troupe disbanded after several appearances. Handy later studied at the Teachers Agricultural and Mechanical College in Huntsville, Alabama, receiving his degree in 1892. He then found work as a schoolteacher, but in his time off he continued to pursue his music career.

Hardships and First Blues Song

Handy's contributions in shaping what would be called the blues were influenced by the African American musical folk traditions that he experienced during his travels and performances. In 1892, he formed a band called Lauzette Quartet, with the intention of performing at the Chicago World's Fair later that year, but when the fair was postponed until 1893, the band was forced to split. Handy ended up in St. Louis, where he experienced difficult days of poverty, hunger and homelessness.

Yet Handy held fast, continued to play the cornet at shows and eventually made his way to Kentucky, where he was hired as a musician in the well-to-do in the city of Henderson. At one performance there in 1898, Handy met Elizabeth Virginia Price, whom he married in July of that year. They would have two children together and remain married until her death in 1937.

But Handy's first big musical break came in 1896, when he was asked to join W. A. Mahara's Minstrels as its bandleader. He stayed with the group for several years, traveling the country and as far away as Cuba to perform. Weary of life on the road, in 1900, Handy and Elizabeth settled down in Huntsville, Alabama, where Handy worked as a music teacher, but in 1902 he hit the road again.

'Memphis Blues'

After a sojourn in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where Handy headed up the band the Black Knights of Pyhtias and immersed himself in the local variation of the blues, by the end of the first decade of the 20th century, Handy had settled in Memphis, Tennessee, where he performed frequently at the Beale Street clubs. In 1909 Handy wrote what was to become a campaign song called "Mr. Crump," named after Memphis mayoral candidate Edward H. "Boss" Crump. (Crump won the election, although the lyrics of the song weren't the most flattering). The song was later reworked and became "Memphis Blues." Handy made a deal to get the song published in 1912, and henceforth became a trailblazer in bringing the form's song structures to large audiences.

Often considered the first blues song every published, "Memphis Blues" was a commercial hit. Handy, however, never got to reap the financial rewards of its success, having sold the rights to the song and fallen prey to exploitative business practices. Having learned his lesson the hard way, he decided to set up a structure to retain ownership of his songs and created his own publishing venture with a songwriter named Harry Pace.

"St. Louis Blues"

Handy released his next hit, "St. Louis Blues" — outlining the hardships he'd experienced years before in the titular city — in 1914, under the Pace & Handy Music Company, (which later became known as the Handy Brothers Music Company, after Pace left the venture). "St. Louis Blues" became a massive success and would be recorded many times over the next several years. Other Handy hits include "Yellow Dog Blues" (1914) and "Beale Street Blues" (1916). He would eventually be credited with composing dozens of songs.

Later Life and Legacy

In 1918, Handy moved his business to New York to escape Southern racial hostility, and later scored success with the composition "Aunt Hagar's Blues." He continued to promote blues to large audiences during the 1920s, editing the book Blues: An Anthology (1926) — which contained blues arrangements for vocals and piano — and organizing the first blues performance in New York City's Carnegie Hall in 1928.

Handy continued working steadily throughout the 1930s, publishing Negro Authors and Composers of the United States in 1935 and W.C. Handy's Collection of Negro Spirituals in 1938. A few years later, in 1941, he published an autobiography, Father of the Blues. Having experienced problems with his eyesight for years, Handy was blind by the mid-1940s due to a skull fracture — the result of a fall from a train platform.

Handy married his longtime assistant, Irma Louise Logan, in 1954, and lived to experience his works performed by popular jazz greats. The blues composer died of pneumonia in New York City on March 28, 1958, at the age of 84. More than 20,000 people attended his funeral at a church in Harlem, and thousands more lined the streets to pay their respects. Only months after his death, his life story played on the silver screen in theaters across the country in the film St. Louis Blues, which starred singer Nat King Cole as the legendary composer.

Handy's legacy continues to shine in the annals of music, with his songs continually reinterpreted in idioms of blues, jazz, pop and classical music. Often referred to as the "Father of the Blues," Handy's pioneering vision also lives on through Alabama's annual W.C. Handy Music Festival.

  • Name: W.C. Handy
  • Birth Year: 1873
  • Birth date: November 16, 1873
  • Birth State: Alabama
  • Birth City: Florence
  • Birth Country: United States
  • Gender: Male
  • Best Known For: W.C. Handy was an African American composer and a leader in popularizing blues music in the early 20th century, with hits like "Memphis Blues" and "St. Louis Blues."
  • Astrological Sign: Scorpio
  • Schools
    • Teachers Agricultural and Mechanical College
  • Death Year: 1958
  • Death date: March 28, 1958
  • Death State: New York
  • Death City: New York
  • Death Country: United States

We strive for accuracy and fairness.If you see something that doesn't look right,contact us!


  • Article Title: W.C. Handy Biography
  • Author: Biography.com Editors
  • Website Name: The Biography.com website
  • Url: https://www.biography.com/musicians/wc-handy
  • Access Date:
  • Publisher: A&E; Television Networks
  • Last Updated: July 28, 2020
  • Original Published Date: April 2, 2014
  • I've always felt that the blues deal with an epoch in our history, and coming from the same people that gave us the spiritual, they reflected a nominal freedom. All the blues that I've written are either historic or folklore or folksong.
  • Whenever I heard the song of a bird and the answering call of its mate, I could visualize the notes in scale . . . all built up within my consciousness as a natural symphony.
  • Life is something like this trumpet. If you don't put anything in it, you don't get anything out. And that's the truth.
W.C. Handy - Songs, Quotes & Facts (2024)

FAQs

What are some fun facts about WC Handy? ›

Although he lost his eyesight at age 30, he conducted his own orchestra from 1903 until 1921. His sight partially returned, but he became completely blind after a fall from a subway platform in 1943. Composing the blues began in 1909 when Handy wrote an election campaign song for the mayor of Memphis, Edward H.

How many songs did WC Handy make? ›

Handy continued to operate the publishing company as a family-owned business. He published works of other black composers as well as his own, which included more than 150 sacred compositions and folk song arrangements and about 60 blues compositions.

How did WC Handy change music? ›

Handy changed the course of popular music by integrating blues and Latin rhythms he heard in vaudeville minstrel shows into then-popular ragtime music. He was a bedrock musician in blues, ragtime, and jazz. He brought Southern Black music into the mainstream by copyrighting old songs along with his new compositions.

Why is WC Handy called the Father of the Blues? ›

The Father of the Blues earned that title in 1912 by writing and publishing the first commercially successful blues song, “Memphis Blues.” In 1914, he made his fame — and fortune — writing and publishing “The St. Louis Blues”, which, in the days before hit records, became a million-selling sheet music phenomenon.

Is WC Handy still alive? ›

Handy, one of the most important figures in 20th-century American popular music history, dies in New York City on March 28, 1958. As a composer, musician and a musicologist, he is best known for mainstreaming the Blues, helping to bring Black sounds to the forefront of American popular music.

What city did Handy settle in? ›

After a sojourn in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where Handy headed up the band the Black Knights of Pyhtias and immersed himself in the local variation of the blues, by the end of the first decade of the 20th century, Handy had settled in Memphis, Tennessee, where he performed frequently at the Beale Street clubs.

Who was WC Handy inspired by? ›

His father and Wallace opposed Handy's desire to pursue a career in music, however, and Handy wrote that when he brought a guitar home, his father, Charles Handy, called it “one of the devil's playthings.” But he continued to be inspired by the secular music of fiddle players Jim Turner and Uncle Whit Walker and by the ...

What song is Handy based on? ›

"Handy" is a song by American musician "Weird Al" Yankovic from his fourteenth studio album, Mandatory Fun (2014). The song is a parody of the 2014 single "Fancy" by Iggy Azalea, featuring Charli XCX.

What music did WC Handy call the weirdest music I had ever heard? ›

It was, Handy later said, "the weirdest music I had ever heard." That strange music was the blues, although few people knew it by that name.

Where did WC Handy say he first heard the blues? ›

Handy was waiting for a train here at the Tutwiler railway station circa 1903 when he heard a man playing slide guitar with a knife and singing “Goin' where the Southern cross' the Dog.” Handy later published an adaptation of this song as “Yellow Dog Blues,” and became known as the “Father of the Blues” after he based ...

Who invented the blues? ›

blues, secular folk music created by African Americans in the early 20th century, originally in the South.

What university did WC Handy attend? ›

What are some interesting facts about WC Handy? ›

Handy was a son and grandson of Methodist ministers, and he was educated at Teachers Agricultural and Mechanical College in Huntsville, Alabama. Going against family tradition, he began to cultivate his interest in music at a young age and learned to play several instruments, including the organ, piano, and guitar.

Who is the father of all blues? ›

For his efforts in making Blues famous, W.C. Handy is known as the “Father of the Blues.”

Where did Handy end up homeless? ›

Ruff is referring to a period of homelessness that Handy experienced after leaving home to be a musician against his father's wishes. This period of sleeping under a bridge in St Louis would result later in his career as one of the world's most popular songs: the Saint Louis Blues.

What made Bessie Smith famous? ›

Bessie Smith (ca. 1895–1937) was a blues and jazz singer from the Harlem Renaissance who is remembered at as the Empress of the Blues.

Who is the father of modern Chicago blues? ›

McKinley Morganfield (April 4, 1913 – April 30, 1983), known professionally as Muddy Waters, was an American blues singer and musician who was an important figure in the post-World War II blues scene, and is often cited as the "father of modern Chicago blues".

What inspired Duke Ellington? ›

Duke Ellington was a versatile and talented musician. His piano playing was greatly influenced by the ragtime pianists James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, and Willie "the Lion" Smith. While watching them as a teenager, he absorbed their style and technique, and his early compositions were of this style.

What are the characteristics of the blues? ›

The blues has a distinct melancholic and somber tone, which is achieved through vocal techniques such as melisma, rhythmic techniques such as syncopation, and instrumental techniques such as “choking” guitar strings on the neck or applying a metal slide to the guitar strings to create a whining voicelike sound.

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