WILLIAM CHRISTOPHER HANDY
W.C. Handy, often credited with fathering popular blues music, was first told that he would be a musician by his mother; she said his big ears were the source of his musical ability. In his home town of Florence, Alabama, Handy learned to play everything from harmonicas and clay jugs to combs and broom handles.
It was in 1909 that Handy wrote his first big hit. Begin¬ ning as an election campaign song for Memphis Mayor Edward Crump, the famous “Memphis Blues” became a national sensation. Handy did not receive the financial bene¬ fit, but he went on to write “St.
Louis Blues” in 1914, which became an even bigger hit. It was the beginning of a brand new phase in music. The blues, based on the old black spiritu¬ als, folk ballads and working man’s songs, made melancholy by flatted thirds and sevenths, became one of the nation’s favorite musical modes of expression.
In his tours throughout the nation, Handy began distributing the outlawed Chicago Defender, published by radical civil rights activist William Trotter. With great risk to himself, Handy had decided to help his lis¬ teners make the move to the North away from widespread racial discrimination of the South.
Some believe that when he wrote “I hate to see the evening sun go down,” he referred to the danger of traveling through small Southern towns where he was not known by his face or his music, but by the color of his skin alone.
In 1918, after listening to the regional music styles of the nation, Handy began chronicling what he heard, and he and his partner, Harry Pace, opened the Pace and Handy Music Company. Along with “Beale St. Blues” in 1919, Handy went on to write a number of pieces that inspire contempo¬ rary musicians still — “A Good Man is Hard to Find ’ and “Careless Love” among them.
Pace and Handy flourished throughout the turbulent war years, and though Handy eventually went blind in 1943, he continued to carve a place for his music, and the music of all African-Americans. Blues music, still one of the most popular musical art forms, continues to be a credit to his innovation and that of African-American musicians around the nation.