W.C. Handy

by Emily B. Ward

Music has always been an integral part of culture. Folk music helps to define the history of a people. History changed when, around the turn of the last century, America became interested in a different kind of folk music: the Blues. Some people say that the Blues was born the moment the African coast slipped below the horizon, others when it was finally put on paper. The general consensus among historians is that it evolved from gospel and African-American slave music sometime in the 1890s. But what popular music today cannot deny is the importance of early Blues music on everything that came after it. William Christopher Handy’s 1909 performance of his song, "Mr. Crump," answered America’s desire for the "primitive music" they associated with black culture, and was the first glimmer of the explosion of the raw, gritty, truthful sound of the Blues available to the American public. Through music, then, Handy played his name into American culture.

Despite Handy’s ultimate importance in music, his love for it was not originally nurtured by his family. His grandfather was a proud man, a former slave and Methodist minister who built the first "colored" church in his town of Florence, Alabama. His disapproval of secular music was shared by his son, Charles, Handy’s father. When W.C. Handy finally earned enough money to buy his first guitar, the accomplishment was not admired by his father, who promptly made him return the "devil’s plaything" and instead channel his musical energy into organ lessons. Years later, when his father saw him as a member of Mahara’s Minstrels, he would apologize to his son for being so unsupportive of his goals. But there are also stories that when Charles heard that his son had said at school that he would like to be a musician, he told his son that he would rather see him in a hearse and "follow [him] to the graveyard" than see him become a musician.

Once he reached adulthood and was free of his father’s beliefs, Handy toured the South, playing the cornet and trumpet in minstrel shows and fairs. By that time he was a qualified teacher, but he left his teaching job soon after he learned that he could earn higher pay in labor, and eventually gave that up too, to become a full-time musician. In 1896, at the age of 22, Handy went to Chicago to join Mahara’s Minstrels with a man whom he had played with in Tennessee and Kentucky. The show toured throughout the South, and through it Handy began to see the appeal to white audiences that "primitive" black music had.

In 1902, in Clarksdale, Mississippi, Handy formed his own band. This was as much a marching band as a dance orchestra, playing both ragtime and light classical songs, as well as the popular dance tunes of the time. Their music appealed to both whites and blacks, and it was at a performance for a mainly white audience that he was asked to play "some of [his] own music." Handy began one of his own compositions but was booed off the stage in favor of three local black men performing a sort of primitive Blues. When Handy saw the crowd’s reaction, he realized something he had not learned in his musical education: all the books that Handy had studied in his formal education failed to mention this kind of primitive music, but he saw then that it had musical merit and crowd pleasing potential. American whites were enchanted by this raw sound that they had never been exposed to before. W.C. Handy would popularize that sound, taken from old black folk songs, and make it available to the white population.

In 1908, Handy and his band were asked by Edward H. Crump, a Memphis political boss, to play for his mayoral campaign. Handy obliged and the song that he wrote in Pee Wee’s Saloon on Beale Street was originally called "Mr. Crump." Despite the fact that the song was not entirely complimentary to Mr. Crump, he won the election and the song became a hit. After the election, a jazz break was added to the song and it was renamed "Memphis Blues." The song was Handy’s first Blues piece and might have been the first Blues song ever published, but due to problems finding a publisher, it was preceded by "Baby Seals Blues" by Artie Matthews, in August of 1912 and "Dallas Blues," by Hart A. Wand, in September of that year. Handy eventually published the song himself in October of 1912, when he opened a music publishing firm on Beale Street with his partner, Harry Pace. Once "Memphis Blues" was published, Handy found that it was also difficult to sell it to white retailers.

W.C. Handy’s best selling song was "St. Louis Blues." Also penned in Memphis, "St. Louis Blues," published in 1914, was not really true blues as much as it was jazz. The song was one of the most recorded pieces between 1900 and 1950, and was recorded more than "Star Dust" and "Tea for Two." The song’s popularity was not confined to the United States. England’s King Edward VIII once asked Scottish bagpipers to play it for him. One of Handy’s most prized souvenirs was an old pirated Japanese record of the song. Even forty years after the publication, Handy still received annual royalties of nearly 25 thousand dollars.

There is controversy as to whether "Memphis Blues" is a true blues song, but regardless of technicalities, the song succeeded in inspiring other artists to write Blues songs, including Perry Bradford’s "Crazy Blues," written for Bessie Smith. Her rendition of "Crazy Blues" was the first recorded Blues song, released in 1920. Bessie’s song helped to begin the classic Blues of the 1920s. The song also helped other black artists to gain respect in the music industry.

Whether or not Handy originally wrote the Blues, he was the first to use certain signature parts of the Blues. Besides being the first to use the word, "Blues" in the title of a song, he was also the first to use the so- called "blue notes," flattened third and sevenths, in a published song. Handy did not, however, always stay with the twelve bar, A-A-B sequence that defines the Blues today.

After mild success with his publishing firm on Beale Street, Handy moved with his partner, Harry Pace, to New York City in 1917. He continued to write songs through the 1920s and in 1926 published Blues: An Anthology, which contained many of his earlier songs and explanations of their origins. During the 1930s, Handy created a number of spirituals that he published in 1939 in a book entitled W.C. Handy’s Collection of Negro Spirituals.

Later that year, Handy was given a tribute at Carnegie Hall. And at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, he was named a "leading contributor to American culture." In his later years, even after the gradual, devastating loss of his eyesight, Handy continued to write, perform, arrange and publish secular and sacred numbers that are now considered cornerstones of pure American music.

Even after his death in New York in 1958, Handy continued to be honored for his contributions to the American popular culture. In 1969, he was honored with a commemorative stamp from the United States Postal Service, and a park in the Beale Street area of Memphis is dedicated to him. In 1979, Blues Foundation began the Handy Awards, the "highest recognition bestowed on blues artists in the music industry." Handy’s more recent honors include his 1993 induction into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame with a Lifework Award for Performing Achievement. Pee Wee’s Saloon, where he wrote Mr. Crump in 1909, is now a Hard Rock Café.

W.C. Handy was a composer, a jazz trumpeter, cornetist, college music teacher, bandleader, and publisher. Despite arguments on the true nature of his music, W.C. Handy’s influence in the fields of jazz and Blues, and his impact on the future of American music and culture, are undeniable. The Blues owe a great deal to Handy, as do other forms of American music that evolved from it. Handy’s influences and the influences that he had on Blues in general can be heard in almost all of the music of today. The Blues, unlike the American music that preceded it, was truthful, dirty, and unpretentious. Before the Blues, these ideas wouldn’t have a place in music. W.C. Handy said, "the Blues don't come from books -- the Blues were conceived of aching hearts" If not for the work of Handy, popular music may have taken a completely different path, and certainly Handy is at least partially responsible for where music is today.

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Copyright © 1995-2004 by Emily B. Ward