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Friday, March 25, 2011

By request from Adrian....W.C. Handy

W.C. Handy

William Christopher Handy (November 16, 1873 – March 28, 1958) was a blues composer and musician. He was widely known as the "Father of the Blues".

Handy remains among the most influential of American songwriters. Though he was one of many musicians who played the distinctively American form of music known as the blues, he is credited with giving it its contemporary form. While Handy was not the first to publish music in the blues form, he took the blues from a not very well-known regional music style to one of the dominant forces in American music.

Handy was an educated musician who used folk material in his compositions. He was scrupulous in documenting the sources of his works, which frequently combined stylistic influences from several performers. He loved this folk musical form and brought his own transforming touch to it.

Handy was born in Florence, Alabama, to the pastor of a small church in Guntersville, another small town in northeast central Alabama. Handy wrote in his 1941 autobiography, Father of the Blues, that he was born in the log cabin built by his grandfather William Wise Handy, who became an African Methodist Episcopal minister after emancipation. The log cabin of Handy's birth has been saved and preserved in downtown Florence.

Handy was a deeply religious man, whose influences in his musical style were found in the church music he sang and played as a youth, and in the sounds of nature in Florence.

He cited the sounds of nature, such as "whippoorwills, bats and hoot owls and their outlandish noises", the sounds of Cypress Creek washing on the fringes of the woodland, and "the music of every songbird and all the symphonies of their unpremeditated art" as inspiration.

Growing up he apprenticed in carpentry, shoemaking and plastering. He bought his first guitar which he had seen in a local shop window and had secretly saved for by picking berries, nuts and making lye soap, without his parents' permission. His father, dismayed at his actions, asked him, "What possessed you to bring a sinful thing like that into our Christian home?" Ordering Handy to "Take it back where it came from", his father quickly enrolled him in organ lessons. Handy's days as an organ student were short lived, and he moved on to learn the cornet. Handy joined a local band as a teenager, but he kept this fact a secret from his parents. He purchased a cornet from a fellow band member and spent every free minute practicing it.

While in Florence he belonged to a "shovel brigade" at the McNabb furnace, and described the music made by the workers as they beat shovels, altering the tone while thrusting and withdrawing the metal part against the iron buggies to pass the time while waiting for the overfilled furnace to digest its ore, "With a dozen men participating, the effect was sometimes remarkable...It was better to us than the music of a martial drum corps, and our rhythms were far more complicated."   He would note that "Southern Negroes sang about everything...They accompany themselves on anything from which they can extract a musical sound or rhythmical effect..." He would later reflect that, "In this way, and from these materials, they set the mood for what we now call blues".
In September 1892, Handy traveled to Birmingham, Alabama to take a teaching exam, which he passed easily. He obtained a teaching job in Birmingham but soon learned that the teaching profession paid poorly. He quit the position and found work at a pipe works plant in nearby Bessemer.

During his off-time, he organized a small string orchestra and taught musicians how to read notes. Later, Handy organized the Lauzetta Quartet. When the group read about the upcoming World's Fair in Chicago, they decided to attend. The trip to Chicago was long and arduous. To pay their way, group members performed at odd jobs along the way. They finally arrived in Chicago only to learn that the World's Fair had been postponed for a year. The group then headed to St. Louis but working conditions there proved to be very bad. The Lauzetta Quartet disbanded and Handy subsequently left St. Louis for Evansville, Indiana. He was one of the people who spread the blues through the United States of America.

In Evansville, Handy's luck changed dramatically. He joined a successful band which performed throughout the neighboring cities and states. While performing at a barbecue in Henderson, Kentucky, he met Elizabeth Price. They married shortly afterwards on July 19, 1896.

His musical endeavors were varied, and he sang first tenor in a minstrel show, moved from Alabama and worked as a band director, choral director, cornetist and trumpeter. At age 23, he was band master of Mahara's Colored Minstrels.

As a young man, he played cornet in the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, and in 1902 he traveled throughout Mississippi listening to various musical styles played by ordinary Negroes. The instruments most often used in many of those songs were the guitar, banjo and to a much lesser extent, the piano. His remarkable memory served him well, and he was able to recall and transcribe the music he heard in his travels. In particular, he noted in his autobiography a blues-like guitarist he heard in Tutwiler, Mississippi.

Shortly after his marriage to Elizabeth Price in 1896, he was invited to join a minstrel group called "Mahara's Minstrels". In their three-year tour, they traveled to Chicago, throughout Texas and Oklahoma, through Tennessee, Georgia and Florida on to Cuba, and Handy was paid a salary of $6 per week. Upon their return from their Cuban engagements, they traveled north through Alabama, and stopped to perform in Huntsville, Alabama. Growing weary from life on the road, it was there he and his wife decided to stay with relatives in his nearby hometown of Florence.

On June 29, 1900 in Florence, Elizabeth gave birth to the first of their six children, a daughter, Lucille. Around that time, William Hooper Councill, President of Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College for Negroes (AAMC) (today named Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University) in Normal, Alabama, approached Handy about teaching music. At the time, AAMC and Tuskegee Institute were the only colleges for Negroes in Alabama. Handy accepted Councill's offer and became a faculty member that September. He taught music there from 1900 to 1902.

An important factor in his musical development and in music history, was his enthusiasm for the distinctive style of uniquely American music, then often considered inferior to European classical music. He was soon disheartened to discover that American music was often cast aside by the college and instead it emphasized foreign music considered to be "classical". Handy felt he was underpaid and felt he could make more money touring with a minstrel group. After a dispute with AAMC President Councill, he resigned his teaching position to rejoin the Mahara Minstrels to tour the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. In 1903 he was offered the opportunity to direct a black band named the Knights of Pythias, located in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Handy accepted and remained there six years.

In 1903 while waiting for a train in Tutwiler, in the Mississippi Delta, Handy had the following experience. "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."

Partway through the evening, while playing a dance in Cleveland, Mississippi (circa 1905 [1]), Handy was given a note that asked for “our native music”. After playing an old-time Southern melody, Handy was asked if he would object if a local colored band played a few numbers. Three young men with a battered guitar, mandolin, and a worn out bass took the stage. (In recounting the same story to Dorthy Scarborough circa 1925, Handy remembered a banjo, guitar, and fiddle.) “They struck up one of those over and over strains that seem to have no beginning and certainly no ending at all. The strumming attained a disturbing monotony, but on and on it went, a kind of stuff associated with cane rows and levee camps. Thump-thump-thump went their feet on the floor. It was not really annoying or unpleasant. Perhaps “haunting” is the better word.”

Handy also noted square dancing by Negroes in Mississippi with "one of their own calling the figures, and crooning all of his calls in the key of G." He would later recall this experience when deciding on the key for "St Louis Blues". "It was the memory of that old gent who called figures for the Kentucky breakdown-the one who everlastingly pitched his tones in the key of G and moaned the calls like a presiding elder preaching at a revival meeting. Ah, there was my key – I'd do the song in G."

In describing "blind singers and footloose bards" around Clarksdale, Handy wrote, "surrounded by crowds of country folks, they would pour their hearts out in song ... They earned their living by selling their own songs – "ballets," as they called them-and I'm ready to say in their behalf that seldom did their creations lack imagination."

In 1909 he and his band moved to Memphis, Tennessee and established their presence on Beale Street. The genesis of his "Memphis Blues" was as a campaign tune originally entitled as "Mr. Crump" which he had written for Edward Crump, a successful Memphis, Tennessee mayoral candidate in 1909 (and future "boss"). He later rewrote the tune and changed the name to "Memphis Blues."

The 1912 publication of his "Memphis Blues" sheet music introduced his style of 12-bar blues to many households and was credited as the inspiration for the invention of the foxtrot dance step by Vernon and Irene Castle, a New York–based dance team. Some consider it to be the first blues song. He sold the rights to the song for US$100. By 1914, when Handy was at the age of 40, his musical style was asserted, his popularity increased significantly, and he composed prolifically.

Handy wrote the following regarding his use of what he heard in folk song. "The primitive southern Negro, as he sang, was sure to bear down on the third and seventh tone of the scale, slurring between major and minor. Whether in the cotton field of the Delta or on the Levee up St. Louis way, it was always the same. Till then, however, I had never heard this slur used by a more sophisticated Negro, or by any white man. I tried to convey this effect... by introducing flat thirds and sevenths (now called blue notes) into my song, although its prevailing key was major..., and I carried this device into my melody as well... This was a distinct departure, but as it turned out, it touched the spot."

Again referring to "what have since become known as "blue notes"", Handy states that "the transitional flat thirds and seventh in my melody" were his attempt "to suggest the typical slurs of the Negro voice". "The three-line structure I employed in my lyric was suggested by a song I heard Phil Jones sing in Evansville ... While I took the three-line stanza as a model for my lyric, I found its repetition too monotonous ... Consequently I adopted the style of making a statement, repeating the statement in the second line, and then telling in the third line why the statement was made."

Regarding the "three-chord basic harmonic structure" of the blues, Handy wrote that the "(tonic, subdominant, dominant seventh) was that already used by Negro roustabouts, honky-tonk piano players, wanderers and others of the underprivileged but undaunted class".

Another detail was noted: "In the folk blues the singer fills up occasional gaps with words like 'Oh, lawdy' or 'Oh, baby' and the like. This meant that in writing a melody to be sung in the blues manner one would have to provide gaps or waits."

Handy detailed the sources for his creations in his autobiography, as described above, and wrote that "it should be clear by now that my blues are built around or suggested by, rather than constructed of, the snatches, phrases, cries and idioms such as I have illustrated.” 

Writing about the first time St Louis Blues was played (1914), Handy wrote that "The one-step and other dances had been done to the tempo of Memphis Blues ... When St Louis Blues was written the tango was in vogue. I tricked the dancers by arranging a tango introduction, breaking abruptly into a low-down blues. My eyes swept the floor anxiously, then suddenly I saw lightning strike. The dancers seemed electrified. Something within them came suddenly to life. An instinct that wanted so much to live, to fling its arms to spread joy, took them by the heels."

Because of the difficulty of getting his works published, he published many of his own works. In 1917, he and his business moved to New York City where he had offices in the Gaiety Theatre office building in Times Square. By the end of that year, his most successful songs: "Memphis Blues", "Beale Street Blues", and "St. Louis Blues", had been published. That year the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, a white New Orleans jazz ensemble, had recorded the very first jazz record and introduced jazz music to a wide segment of the American public. Handy initially had little fondness for this new "jazz" music, but bands dove into the repertoire of W. C. Handy compositions with enthusiasm, making many of them jazz standards.

While trying to establish his Memphis band, Handy complained to his Aunt Matt Jordan that other bands made mistakes while his men played "perfect". His Aunt remarked, "Honey, white folks like to hear colored folks make some mistakes." "In this one remark", wrote Handy, "can be hidden the source or secret of jazz."

Handy's foray into publishing was noteworthy for several reasons. Not only were his works groundbreaking because of his ethnicity, but he was among the first blacks who were successful because of it. He self-published his works. In 1912, Handy met Harry H. Pace at the Solvent Savings Bank in Memphis. Pace was valedictorian of his graduating class at Atlanta University and student of W. E. B. Du Bois. By the time of their meeting, Pace had already demonstrated a strong understanding of business. He earned his reputation by recreating failing businesses. Handy liked him, and Pace later became manager of Pace and Handy Sheet Music.
Sometime during his association with Pace, Handy recounted the following experience with racism, one of many during his lifetime. "One morning, while passing the square on Beale Street that bears my name, I noticed a crowd of Negroes gathered around a skull. The day before, that skull had belonged to a pleasant, easy-going young fellow named Tom Smith. Now it was severed from his body. The eyes had been burned out with red hot irons. A rural mob, not satisfied with burying his body, had brought the skull back to town and tossed it into a crowd of Negroes to humiliate and intimidate them... All the brutal, savage acts I had seen wrecked against unfortunate human beings came back to torment me-particularly those in which the luckless one came near being myself." 

While in New York City, Handy wrote: "I was under the impression that these Negro musicians would jump at the chance to patronize one of their own publishers. They didn't... The Negro musicians simply played the hits of the day...They followed the parade. Many white bands and orchestra leaders, on the other hand, were on the alert for novelties. They were therefore the ones most ready to introduce our numbers." But, "Negro vaudeville artists...wanted songs that would not conflict with white acts on the bill. The result was that these performers became our most effective pluggers."

Handy associated with individuals such as Al Bernard, "a young white man" with a "soft Southern accent" who "could sing all my Blues". Handy sent Bernard to Thomas Edison to be recorded, which resulted in "an impressive series of successes for the young artist, successes in which we proudly shared". Handy also published the original "Shake Rattle and Roll" and "Saxophone Blues", both written by Bernard. "Two young white ladies from Selma, Alabama (Madelyn Sheppard and Annelu Burns) contributed the songs "Pickaninny Rose" and "O Saroo", with the music published by Handy's company. These numbers, plus our blues, gave us a reputation as publishers of Negro music."

Expecting to make only "another hundred or so" on a third recordng of his "Yellow Dog Blues" (originally titled "Yellow Dog Rag"), Handy signed a deal with the Victor company. The Joe Smith recording of this song (1919) became the best-selling recording of Handy's music to date.

Attempts "to introduce colored girls for recording our blues" were initially unsuccessful. "We were making too much money evidently." In 1920 however, Perry Bradford was able to get Mamie Smith to record two non blues songs written by himself, and published by Handy accompanied by a white band: "That Thing Called Love" and "You Can't Keep a Good Man Down". When Bradford's "Crazy Blues" became a hit as recorded by Smith, "Colored blues singers, being in great demand, were contracted forthwith." With the bitterness of sharp competition, "Our business began to fall away as steadily as it had grown."

In 1920 Pace amicably dissolved his long-standing partnership with Handy, with whom he also collaborated as lyricist. As Handy wrote: "To add to my woes, my partner withdrew from the business. He disagreed with some of my business methods, but no harsh words were involved. He simply chose this time to sever connection with our firm in order that he might organize Pace Phonograph Company, issuing Black Swan Records and making a serious bid for the Negro market. . . . With Pace went a large number of our employees. . . . Still more confusion and anguish grew out of the fact that people did not generally know that I had no stake in the Black Swan Record Company."

Although Handy's partnership with Pace was dissolved, he 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 sixty blues compositions. In the 1920s, he founded the Handy Record Company in New York City.

Bessie Smith's January 14, 1925, Columbia Records recording of "St. Louis Blues" with Louis Armstrong is considered by many to be one of the finest recordings of the 1920s.
In 1926 Handy authored and edited a work entitled Blues: An Anthology—Complete Words and Music of 53 Great Songs. It is probably the first work that attempted to record, analyze and describe the blues as an integral part of the U.S. South and the history of the United States.
So successful was Handy's "St. Louis Blues" that in 1929, he and director Kenneth W. Adams collaborated on a RCA motion picture project of the same name, which was to be shown before the main attraction. Handy suggested blues singer Bessie Smith have the starring role, since she had gained widespread popularity with that tune. The picture was shot in June and was shown in movie houses throughout the United States from 1929 to 1932.

The genre of the blues was a hallmark of American society and culture in the 1920s and 1930s. So great was its influence, and so much was it recognized as Handy's hallmark, that author F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his novel The Great Gatsby that "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. At the gray tea hour there were always rooms that throbbed incessantly with this low, sweet fever, while fresh faces drifted here and there like rose petals blown by the sad horns around the floor."

Following publication of his autobiography, Handy published a book on African-American musicians entitled Unsung Americans Sing (1944). He wrote a total of five books:
  1. Blues: An Anthology: Complete Words and Music of 53 Great Songs
  2. Book of Negro Spirituals
  3. Father of the Blues: An Autobiography
  4. Unsung Americans Sing
  5. Negro Authors and Composers of the United States
During this time, he lived on Strivers' Row in Harlem. He became blind following an accidental fall from a subway platform in 1943. After the death of his first wife, he remarried in 1954, at age 80. His new bride was his secretary Irma Louise Logan, whom he frequently said had become his eyes.

In 1955 Handy suffered a stroke, following which he began to use a wheelchair. Over 800 people attended his 84th birthday party at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
On March 28, 1958 he died of bronchial pneumonia at Sydenham Hospital in New york City.[29] Over 25,000 people attended his funeral in Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church. Over 150,000 people gathered in the streets near the church to pay their respects. He was buried in the Woodlawn Cemetery in Bronx, New York.

Soooo, this is what I have...mostly just the earlier stuff, not recordings from the later period. Not much of a big list, but maybe some that you have, some that you may not have. Hope this works for ya. :)

A Bunch o blues -9-24-1917
Farewell blues -5-1923
Fuzzy wuzzy rag 9-21-1917
Gulf coast blues 5-1923
Hooking cow blues 9-24-1917
Livery stable blues 9-25-1917
Loveless love 12-26-1939
Memphis blues 6-4-1923
Moonlight blues 9-22-1917
Muscle shoals blues 3-1922
Ole Miss rag 9-22-1917
She's a mean job blues 3-1922
Snaky blues  9-22-1917
St. Louis blues 1-1922
Sweet child (introducing "Pallet on the floor") 9-25-1917
That jazz dance (The Jazz dance everybody is crazy 'bout) 9-22-1917
The old town pump 9-22-1917
Yellow dog blues 1-1922


  1. Thank you SOOOOOOOOOO much. True historic need-to-hear stuff!

  2. Thanks! Adrian from the Netherlands, requested some Handy. It wasn't until I looked around that I noticed no one had posted any of this. They write ABOUT it, but never post any music to actually HEAR. It's certainly difficult to find much of the later recordings. I'm kinda one seems to focus much on this early era.