W. C. Handy

Posted: January 1, 2011 in Memphis Music
Tags: , , ,

Music has always coursed through the veins of this Southern town on the bluffs of the Mississippi River. The ghostly echoes of its music’s prehistory still ring off of the Indian burial mounds there. The work songs of slaves unloading cargo from riverboats— and their blood and sweat— permeate the river landings. History needs a tangible record, however. Documentation. With a tip of the cotton picker’s straw hat (purchased at A. Schwab’s dry goods store) to those who came before, I can think of no other way to begin this blog about the history of Memphis music than to pay tribute to the Father of Memphis Music- W. C. Handy.

William Christopher Handy (November 16, 1873 – March 28, 1958) was an educated musician born in Florence, Alabama, the son of an African Methodist Episcopal minister. He claimed to be influenced by the sounds of rural Alabama and by the complex rhythms of his fellow workers’ shovels at a foundry in Florence. He played a number of musical instruments and performed in minstrel shows that toured the U.S. and Cuba before the turn of the 20th century, but he is known to Memphians as a trumpeter due to his famous statue.

Handy became a music faculty member at Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College for Negroes and taught from 1900 to 1902. In his travels through Mississippi, he used his remarkable memory and ability to transcribe music to document the blues he heard there. He wrote in his 1941 autobiography, Father of the Blues, of a train station encounter in Tutwiler, Mississippi: “A lean loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept… As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars….The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.” He described music he heard while playing a dance in Cleveland, Mississippi as the “kind of stuff associated with cane rows and levee camps” and deemed it “haunting”.

youtube: Memphis Blues

Performing music was more profitable for Handy than teaching it, so he established his own band in Memphis, Tennessee around 1910. He composed the great “Memphis Blues” originally as a campaign song for Memphis mayoral candidate (and soon-to-be notorious “boss”) Edward Crump. It was published in 1912 and brought the first sounds of the 12 bar blues into the homes of America and the rest of the world. The foxtrot dance step was inspired by it, and Handy sold the rights to the song for a mere $100. His popularity continued to increase, however, as he authored the “St. Louis Blues” and “Beale Street Blues”, basing them on popular dances like the one-step and the tango. He was among the first published composers to convey the distinctive idioms of blues music— blue notes, slurs, the three chords and three four bar phrases— which he had heard on the Delta cotton plantations and on the levees of St. Louis.

youtube: St. Louis Blues

W. C. Handy found it difficult for an African-American to get his works published, so he moved to New York City in 1917 where he established his own successful publishing company. He wrote an impressive work entitled Blues: An Anthology—Complete Words and Music of 53 Great Songs in 1926, and in 1938 published W. C. Handy’s Collection of Negro Spirituals. An RCA movie was made based on his “St. Louis Blues” and starred Bessie Smith. In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “All night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of the “Beale Street Blues” while a hundred pairs of golden and silver slippers shuffled the shining dust.”

youtube: piano roll

Handy died in New York City of pneumonia on March 28, 1958.

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image credits: Q.T. Luong; Greg Cottrell; Michael Ochs Archives

  1. Ed Clift says:

    Fascinating stuff, I want to hear the rest of the Memphis story >>

  2. thetimnelson says:

    We almost ventured back through Memphis on our way home this Christmas. Our boys liked the idea, but the weatherman did not.

  3. reno seo says:

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