W. C. Handy (1873–1958)

Updated: March 01, 2011

Early jazz composer and pianist.

Born on November 16, 1873, in Florence, Alabama, William Christopher Handy studied organ and music theory at an early age. By his early teens, he had learned to play the cornet, had sung with a local minstrel show, and had begun to hone his composing skills. Handy left home at the age of eighteen and went on to a variety of musical jobs, including leading his own band and teaching music at Alabama A&M College.

In 1908 Handy and Harry Pace founded a music publishing company in Memphis, and six years later Handy published his world-renowned composition “St. Louis Blues.” Although not the first to publish a twelve-bar blues composition, Handy was one of the most prominent early composers in the genre. He also arranged numerous African American folk songs and spirituals. In September 1917, his small jazz ensemble recorded fifteen sides for Columbia, including several of Handy’s own works. The next year the Pace-Handy company relocated to New York City to be closer to more African American composers. In 1920 Pace and Handy parted company, with the latter forming a new publishing company, Handy Brothers Incorporated, while Pace founded the first African American–owned phonograph record company, Black Swan. Handy Brothers continued to publish the musical works of African American composers, and Handy himself promoted musical events at venues as diverse as Carnegie Hall, the New York World’s Fair, and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Exposition.

Two years before a 1943 accident left him virtually blind, Handy published Father of the Blues: An Autobiography. From the late 1940s into the 1950s, his various musical activities continued, and his public reputation grew. Handy died March 28, 1958. In the early 1980s, the Blues Foundation, an organization dedicated to promoting that musical genre, initiated the W. C. Handy Awards, which honor significant contributions to blues music. The W. C. Handy Home and Museum in Florence celebrates the composer’s life and musical legacy, and that city also hosts the annual W. C. Handy Music Festival.

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"W. C. Handy." (2017) In Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Retrieved March 29, 2017, from Encyclopedia of Appalachia: http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=108

W.C. Handy