Posts Tagged ‘W.C. Handy’

William Christopher Handy (November 16, 1873 – March 28, 1958) was a blues composer and musician, often 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 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. An exceptional student in school, he placed near the top of his class.

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 of 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.
He formed a quartet called 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.

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, and they married shortly afterwards (on July 19, 1896).

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.

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.

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, coronetist and trumpeter.  At age 23, he was band master of Mahara’s Colored Minstrels.  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.

On June 29, 1900 in Florence, Elizabeth gave birth to the first (a daughter, Lucille) of their six children. Around that time, William Hooper Councill, President of Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College for Negroes ( which is today named Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University) in Normal, Alabama (a small community just outside Huntsville) 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 which was 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 emphasized foreign music considered to be “classical”.

Handy felt he was underpaid and felt he could make more money touring with a minstrel group and 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.

The oft cited story of W.C.Handy at the train station was the first time he had heard the blues. Then he thought it was interesting and different, but no big deal. The REAL catalyst that made him pay attention to it as a musical form (previously he was performing a lot of classical music, broadway tunes, some ragtime, etc.) was an incident at a dance that same year.  A few weeks or months later, partway through the evening while playing a dance in Cleveland, Mississippi 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.

“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.”

The band was a guitar, mandolin (celtic influence), and bass (classical and/or jazz influence). The music was not well-formed. It had no real beginning, and no end. It just was. A riff or rhythm repeated over and over. Handy didn’t think it was good or bad, but “haunting” and wondered if anyone really liked this music. Then the rest of the audience started dropping dollar and coins for the band. The 3 guys made more money playing that one rhythm over and over than Handy and his 9 bandmates made together for the whole night! From then on, Handy played local music wherever he went. He became known not so much as a writer of the blues or performer, but as a popularizer through his shows and publishing. He was to the blues what Elvis was to RocknRoll. He didn’t invent it, but he really brought out from the small time and to the masses.

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