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Sun, 11.16.1873

Composer, W.C. Handy born

W. C. Handy

W. C. Handy was born on this date in 1873. He was a Black composer, cornet player, and bandmaster,

Born in a two-room cabin in Florence, Alabama, William Christopher Handy was educated in the public schools by his father and paternal grandfather, both of whom were clergymen. Handy heard music wherever he turned--spirituals at his father’s church and chants of laborers on the river.  He was sent to Huntsville A&M to get a teaching degree and from 1900 to 1902, he was a music teacher there. Upon graduation he left for the Chicago World's Fair, only to find that it had been delayed for a year.

He began his musical career as a cornet soloist and bandmaster with minstrel shows. One of his earliest engagements was with the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

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. Handy was an educated musician and taught others, including how to read notes. He combined his education with 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."

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. Upon their return, they traveled north through Alabama and stopped to perform in Huntsville. He and his wife decided to stay with relatives in his nearby hometown of Florence, both having grown tired of traveling on the road.  On June 29, 1900, in Florence, Elizabeth gave birth to the first (a daughter, Lucille) of their six children.

About that time, William Hooper Councill, the president of Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College for Negroes (AAMC) (today named Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University) in Normal, approached Handy about teaching music. At the time, AAMC and Tuskegee Institute were the only colleges for Blacks in Alabama.  Handy accepted Councill's offer and became a faculty member teaching music there from 1900 to 1902.

Handy felt he was underpaid and that he could make more money touring with a minstrel group, so he resigned from 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.

Handy turned to composition in 1907; his first published song was "Memphis Blues". Unfortunately, he sold it for a mere $100 and watched it make a fortune. Vowing never to make that mistake again, Handy founded his music-publishing house and edited and wrote several books, including the autobiographical Father of the Blues." Other popular Handy songs are "Saint Louis Blues," "Beale Street Blues" and "Loveless Love."

Originally, the blues were a type of Black folk song little known listened to and collected folk music. Eventually, his songs brought the blues to international attention. 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 American South and the history of the United States.

In his later years, he felt vigorous enough to play at Dwight D. Eisenhower's inaugural ball in 1953. W.C. Handy died in 1958.

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