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W.C. Handy

While experts in blues music do not take William Christopher Handy's appellation of "Father of the Blues" very seriously, he was the first composer to take advantage of the potential blues as popular musical form. His "St. Louis Blues" (1914) became one of the most enduring -- almost monolithic in stature -- of American popular songs.

Handy was born in Florence, AL, into a family that frowned upon music-making as sinful and seditious; when as a high school student he purchased a cornet, Handy was forced to keep it a secret from his family. Although he'd earned a teaching certificate by 1892, he worked as a pipe fitter and, in the off hours, played with a string band called the Lauzetta Quartet. By 1896, he had joined the Mahara Minstrel Troupe, touring the American South and Caribbean until 1903, excepting a period in 1900-1901 when he served on the faculty of the Agricultural and Mechanical College in Normal, AL. In 1903, Handy took over the leadership of the Knights of Pythias band of Clarksdale, MS; by 1909, Handy had moved the band to Memphis and operated out of an office on Beale Street.

While waiting for a train in 1903, Handy heard what he called "the crude singing of the negro down there," an early blues singer -- some experts have speculated that Handy may have heard Henry Sloan, a mysterious bluesman who is said to have been Charley Patton's teacher. Shortly after arriving in Memphis, Handy wrote a campaign song for mayoral candidate Edward Crump, "Mister Crump Don't Like It," which had a vaguely bluesy sound to it; it became a regional hit, even though Crump made it into office by only 79 votes. In 1913, Handy published "Mister Crump" in a slightly reworked version as "The Memphis Blues," slightly behind "Dallas Blues" by Oklahoma City-based composer Hart Wand -- for years, "The Memphis Blues" was regarded as the first published blues song. Stung by the fact that "The Memphis Blues" sold thousands of dollars worth of sheet music, yet he'd received only $100 for the piece, Handy published his next song, "St. Louis Blues," through his own imprint, which he shared with his lyricist and business partner, Harry Pace. This copyright went on to net Handy a handsome profit as one of the most popular and oft-recorded tunes of the twentieth century. In the years to follow, Handy also published "Yellow Dog Blues," "Beale Street Blues," and "Aunt Hagar's Blues," all huge successes that inspired a trend in popular music in the years 1916-1923 that witnessed an explosion of Tin Pan Alley songs with the word "blues" in the title that contained no blues at all.

Handy's band made its first recordings for Paramount in 1917, and in 1920 Handy and Pace split up, with Pace going to New York to found Black Swan Records, the first African-American record label. "Aunt Hagar's Blues" in 1922 was Handy's last considerable commercial success, and from 1923, his worklist is heavy with arrangements of gospel material and some semi-serious compositions. Handy also took up writing as an avocation, publishing Blues: An Anthology (1926), Negro Composers and Authors in the United States (1935), his autobiography Father of the Blues (1941), and Unsung Americans Sung (1944). Throughout these years, Handy's eyesight was steadily failing, and an accident in 1941 rendered him totally blind.

Handy, nonetheless, enjoyed great celebrity during his lifetime as "father of the blues"; in 1958, the year Handy died, a highly fictionalized account of his life was made into a motion picture, St. Louis Blues, starring Nat King Cole. Handy's celebrity status and recognition as the "father of the blues" did not long outlast him, though a park in Memphis is named after him, as are the annual W.C. Handy Blues Awards.