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Remembering the Father of the Blues

Today’s blog celebrates the career of W.C. Handy.

Born in Florence, Alabama on November 16, 1873, William Christopher Handy became interested in music at an early age. His father, a minister, felt that music was an unwise career choice for him and, indeed, the young Handy experienced years of poverty and homelessness at first. But he persisted, and in 1892 he earned a degree from the Teachers’ Agricultural and Mechanical College in Huntsville, Alabama. This allowed him to work as a teacher, while performing music during school vacations.

Having always immersed himself in the African American music of his era, Handy eventually began writing songs describing the hardships he had experienced. In 1912 he published “Memphis Blues,” now considered the first blues song. Although it was a hit, he got very little money for it, so he set up the Handy Brothers Music Company, which in 1914 published his “St. Louis Blues.” This song was a bigger hit than “Memphis Blues,” and this time he received more of the profits. Other songs by Handy are “Yellow Dog Blues” and “Beale Street Blues.”

After moving his company to New York City in 1918, he continued to write songs, and edited a book called Blues: An Anthology (1926). He is credited with organizing the first blues concert in Carnegie Hall, which took place in 1928. By the 1940s, he was blind, but continued to publish collections of blues songs and spirituals. When he died (on March 28, 1958), more than 20,000 people attended his funeral. Only a few months later, the film St. Louis Blues, starring Nat King Cole, paid tribute to Handy’s career.

The NLS Music Section has some materials which can bring you into the world of this composer and his music. The first two are available on cartridge or may be downloaded from BARD:

For braille readers, we have:

  • “St. Louis Blues” (BRM27034) for voice and piano
  • From Cakewalks to Concert Halls: An Illustrated History of African American Popular Music from 1895 to 1930, by Thomas L. Morgan and William Barlow, (BRM29973). Handy is one of the artists covered in Part 2, “That Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do.”

For further reading, this title is available from the NLS audio collection: W.C. Handy: the Life and Times of the Man who Made the Blues by David Robertson (DB 69060).

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