William Christopher Handy (1873-1958)
William Christopher Handy worked various jobs and apprenticeships from an early age. He was also enamored of music from an early age, if his tenacity at saving money to buy his first guitar is any indication. His father, a Methodist minister who had been enslaved prior to emancipation, believed that all secular “musical instruments were the tools of the devil” (“W.C. Handy,” n.d.). He ordered Handy to return the guitar immediately, and, perhaps as a concession to Handy’s musical drive, arranged for Handy to receive organ lessons at the church. However, Handy’s musical interests were not so easily bound to religious music; as a teenager he secretly joined a band playing coronet.
Handy continued to move among and organize musical groups similar to the way he also moved through various apprenticeships and jobs, eventually teaching music at the Alabama Agriculture & Mechanical College (“W.C. Handy,” n.d.). In 1892 his band set off with the goal of performing at the World’s Fair in Chicago only to discover it had been postponed for a year. Without enough money to get all the way home, the band separated temporarily and Handy got stuck in St. Louis, sleeping in vacant lots and singing on the corners for food money. Historians and Handy himself point to these hard times as setting the ground work for his future musical legacy (Pruitt, 2009). Eventually, Handy and his band would tour the U.S., Canada, Cuba, and the black vaudeville circuit performing what was then called novelty music (Booker, 2015 p 234; Pruitt, 2009).
Though initially ambivalent about blues music, Handy began to arrange blues songs for his band after he had been, reportedly, hearing it played “everywhere.” He would say: “It was the weirdest music I ever heard” (Wischusen, 2016). By 1907 Handy and his band were performing his blues numbers in Memphis, and were popular on Beale Street. He wrote his first blues hit there, in support of Edward Hull Crump’s mayoral campaign in 1909, called “Mr. Crump,” later known as “The Memphis Blues” (Wischusen, 2016). Handy would not publish “The Memphis Blues” until 1912 when, finding persistent denial from music publishers and shops, Handy worked out a deal with a store manager to publish the music in exchange for the copyright. Immediately after the deal was in place, the music sold thousands of copies and spread across the country, making a great deal of money for the music store manager. Handy, however, was denied the royalties and the rights to control his own work (Pruitt, 2009). Later, Handy would co-establish the Pace and Handy Sheet Music Publication Company with Harry Pace, a student of W.E.B. Du Bois (“W.C. Handy,” n.d.).
In addition to writing and performing, Handy studied music and, in 1926, published his first book on the subject: Blues: An Anthology—Complete Words and Music of 53 Great Songs. He would follow with Book of Negro Spirituals, and Negro Authors and Composers of the United States before writing his own autobiography in 1941, Father of the Blues, and Unsung Americans Sung in 1944 (“W.C. Handy,” n.d.). By this time, W.C. Handy had become completely blind. However, neither his blindness nor a stroke in 1955 that impaired his mobility, kept him from composing music up until his death at 84 years of age (Pruitt, 2009).
W. C. Handy in the news:
Songs in the USF Libraries digital African American Sheet Music Collection: