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 regional music style with a limited audience to one of the dominant national 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. His father was 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 (AME) 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 natural world. He later 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 secretly saved for by picking berries, nuts and making lye soap, without his parents’ permission. His father 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.
He worked on 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 wrote, “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 to take a teaching exam, which he passed easily, and gained a teaching job in the city. Learning that it paid poorly, he quit the position and found industrial 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. To pay their way, group members performed at odd jobs along the way. They arrived in Chicago only to learn that the World’s Fair had been postponed for a year. Next they headed to St. Louis but found working conditions very bad.
After the quartet disbanded, Handy went to Evansville, Indiana, where he helped introduce the blues. He played cornet in the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. In Evansville, Handy joined a successful band that performed throughout the neighboring cities and states. His musical endeavors were varied: he sang first tenor in a minstrel show, worked as a band director, choral director, cornetist and trumpeter.
At age 23, Handy became band master of Mahara’s Colored Minstrels. In their three-year tour, they traveled to Chicago, throughout Texas and Oklahoma, through Tennessee, Georgia and Florida, and on to Cuba. Handy earned a salary of $6 per week. Returning from Cuba, the band traveled north through Alabama, and stopped to perform in Huntsville. Weary of life on the road, he and his wife Elizabeth decided to stay with relatives in his nearby hometown of Florence.
Marriage and family
In 1896 while performing at a barbecue in Henderson, Kentucky, Handy met Elizabeth Price. They married shortly afterward on July 19, 1896. She had Lucille, the first of their six children, on June 29, 1900 after they had settled in Florence, Alabama, his hometown. Henderson’s W.C. Handy Blues & Barbecue Festival is held annually in June.
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, recruited Handy to teach music at the college. Handy became a faculty member in September 1900, teaching through much of 1902.
His enthusiasm for the distinctive style of uniquely American music, then often considered inferior to European classical music, was part of his development. He was disheartened to discover that the college emphasized teaching European music considered to be “classical”. Handy felt he was underpaid and could make more money touring with a minstrel group.
Studying the blues
In 1902 Handy traveled throughout Mississippi, where he listened to the various black popular musical styles. The state was mostly rural, and music was part of the culture, especially of the Mississippi Delta cotton plantation areas. Musicians usually played the guitar, banjo and to a much lesser extent, the piano. Handy’s remarkable memory enabled him to recall and transcribe the music heard in his travels.
After a dispute with AAMC President Councill, Handy resigned his teaching position to rejoin the Mahara Minstrels and tour the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. In 1903 he became the director of a black band organized by the Knights of Pythias, located in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Handy and his family lived there for 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.”
About 1905 while playing a dance in Cleveland, Mississippi, Handy was given a note asking for “our native music”. He played an old-time Southern melody, but was asked if a local colored band could play a few numbers. Three young men with a battered guitar, mandolin, and a worn-out bass took the stage. 
“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 [sugar] 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 noted square dancing by Mississippi blacks with “one of their own calling the figures, and crooning all of his calls in the key of G.” He remembered this 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, “[S]urrounded 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.”
Transition: popularity, fame and business
In 1909 Handy and his band moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where they started playing at clubs on Beale Street. The genesis of his “Memphis Blues” was as a campaign tune written for Edward Crump, a successful Memphis mayoral candidate in 1909 (and future “boss”). Handy later rewrote the tune and changed its name from “Mr. Crump” to “Memphis Blues.”
The 1912 publication of his “Memphis Blues” sheet music introduced his style of 12-bar blues; it was credited as the inspiration for the foxtrot dance step by Vernon and Irene Castle, a New York–based dance team. Some consider it to be the first blues song. Handy sold the rights to the song for US$100. By 1914, when Handy was 40, he had established his musical style, his popularity increased significantly, and he composed prolifically.
Handy wrote about using folk songs:
“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.”
“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 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”. He 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.”
Writing about the first time “St Louis Blues” was played (1914), Handy said,
“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.”
His published musical works were groundbreaking because of his ethnicity, and he was among the first blacks to achieve economic success because of publishing. 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.
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.”
In 1917, he and his publishing 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 first jazz record, introducing the style to a wide segment of the American public. Handy initially had little fondness for this new “jazz”, but bands dove into his repertoire with enthusiasm, making many of them jazz standards.
Handy encouraged performers 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.” 
“Ole Miss Rag”, a ragtime composed by W. C. Handy and recorded by Handy’s Orchestra of Memphis in 1917 in New York.
Expecting to make only “another hundred or so” on a third recording 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 in 1919 became the best-selling recording of Handy’s music to date. 
Handy tried to interest black women singers in his music, but initially was unsuccessful. In 1920 Perry Bradford persuaded Mamie Smith to record two of his non-blues songs, 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, African-American blues singers became increasingly popular. Handy found his business began to decrease because of the competition.
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 60 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. 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.
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.
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.”
- Blues: An Anthology: Complete Words and Music of 53 Great Songs
- Book of Negro Spirituals
- Father of the Blues: An Autobiography
- Unsung Americans Sing
- 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.
On March 28, 1958 he died of bronchial pneumonia at Sydenham Hospital in New York City. 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.
- “Memphis Blues”, written 1909, published 1912. Although usually subtitled “Boss Crump”, it is a distinct song from Handy’s campaign satire, “Boss Crump don’t ‘low no easy riders around here”, which was based on the good-time song “Mamma Don’t Allow It.”
- “Yellow Dog Blues” (1912), “Your easy rider’s gone where the Southern cross the Yellow Dog.” The reference is to the crossing at Moorhead, Mississippi, of the Southern Railway and the local Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad, called the Yellow Dog. By Handy’s telling locals assigned the words “Yellow Dog” to the letters Y.D.(for Yazoo Delta) on the freight trains that they saw.
- “St. Louis Blues” (1914), “the jazzman’s Hamlet.”
- “Loveless Love”, based in part on the classic, “Careless Love“. Possibly the first song to complain of modern synthetics, “with milkless milk and silkless silk, we’re growing used to soulless soul.”
- “Aunt Hagar’s Blues”, the biblical Hagar, handmaiden to Abraham and Sarah, was considered the “mother” of the African Americans.
- “Beale Street Blues” (1916), written as a farewell to the old Beale Street of Memphis (actually called Beale Avenue until the song changed the name); but Beale Street did not go away and is considered the “home of the blues” to this day. B.B. King was known as the “Beale Street Blues Boy” and Elvis Presley watched and learned from Ike Turner there.
- “Long Gone John (From Bowling Green)”, tribute to a famous bank robber.
- “Chantez-Les-Bas (Sing ‘Em Low)”, tribute to the Creole culture of New Orleans.
- “Atlanta Blues”, includes the song known as “Make Me a Pallet on your Floor” as its chorus.
- “Ole Miss Rag” (1917), a ragtime composition, recorded by Handy’s Orchestra of Memphis.
Performances and honors
- On April 27, 1928, he performed a program of jazz, blues, plantation songs, work songs, piano solos, spirituals and a Negro rhapsody in Carnegie Hall.
- In 1938 he performed at the National Folk Festival in Washington, DC, his first national performance on a desegregated stage.
- He performed at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933 and 1934 and the New York World’s Fair in 1939 and 1940.
- In 1940, NBC broadcast an all-Handy program as part of its weekly series The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street. His songs were performed by Dinah Shore and by the composer himself.
- Louis Armstrong plays W.C.Handy (1954)
- He is referenced in Prof. Harold Hill’s lead-in to the song Seventy-Six Trombones in Meredith Willson‘s 1957 musical The Music Man.
- In 1958, a movie about his life – appropriately entitled St. Louis Blues – was released starring legendary African-American musicians Nat “King” Cole (in the main role), Pearl Bailey, Mahalia Jackson, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, and Eartha Kitt. It was released the year of Handy’s death.
- On May 17, 1969, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in his honor.
- Inducted in the National Academy of Popular Music Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970.
- He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1983.
- He is referenced in Joni Mitchell‘s 1975 song Furry Sings the Blues.
- He is referenced in Marc Cohn‘s 1991 song Walking in Memphis, covered by Lonestar, Cher, and other artists. “…Touched down in the land of the Delta Blues, in the middle of the pouring rain. W.C. Handy, won’t you look down over me?”
- He received a Grammy Trustees Award for his lifetime achievements in 1993.
- He was inducted into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame in 1985, and was a 1993 Inductee into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, with the Lifework Award for Performing Achievement.
- Citing 2003 as “the centennial anniversary of when W.C. Handy composed the first Blues music…” the United States Senate in 2002 passed a resolution declaring the year beginning February 1, 2003 as the “Year of the Blues.”
- Each November 16, Handy’s birthday is celebrated with free music, birthday cake and free admission to the W.C. Handy Museum in Florence, Alabama. The hand-hewn log cabin made by his grandfather is his birthplace and museum.
- An autographed 1937 photo from W.C. Handy to Anton Lada of Lada’s Louisiana Orchestra sold for $850 in 2006.
- The Blues Music Award, widely recognized as the most prestigious award for blues artists was known as the W. C. Handy Award until the name change in 2006.
- The W. C. Handy Music Festival is held annually in the Muscle Shoals area of Florence, Alabama. Previous week-long festivals have featured jazz and blues legends including Jimmy Smith, Ramsey Lewis, Dizzy Gillespie, Bobby Blue Bland, Diane Schuur, Billy Taylor, Dianne Reeves and Charlie Byrd, Ellis Marsalis and Take 6. The festival also features a roster of annual regulars, called the W. C. Handy Jazz All-Stars.
- W. C. Handy Park is a city park located on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee. The park contains a life-sized bronze statue of Handy.
- The W.C. Handy Blues & Barbeque Festival is a week-long musical event that features blues and Zydeco bands from across the U.S and is held every June on the banks of the Ohio River in downtown Henderson, Kentucky.
- In 1979, New York City joined the list of institutions and municipalities to honor Handy by naming one block of West 52nd Street in Manhattan “W.C. Handy Place”.