W.C. Handy Plaque

Happy Birthday Mr Handy!

There is no rhythm and blues, rock-and-roll, or gospel without William Christopher Handy, the Father of the Blues. I visited his museum to learn more about his life and accomplishments.

W.C. Handy, as he was commonly known, was born in Florence, Alabama on November 16, 1873. He had an early interest in music but his very religious family believed “musician” was not an acceptable career so he earned a teaching certificate instead. He took his teaching exam in Birmingham and taught there. 

He soon learned teaching didn’t pay much and started working in a pipe plant in Bessemer, Alabama. His musical interests continued and he founded a quartet that he took to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Sadly the fair was pushed back a year and Mr Handy ended up in Evansville, Indiana where his musical luck improved.

He met and married his first wife, Elizabeth, joined the Mahara’s Minstrels group, and embarked on a  three-year tour. He returned to Florence and began teaching at the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Normal, Alabama, known today as Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University or Alabama A&M.

He returned to touring to earn more money to care for his growing family and had his first popular hit after a move to Memphis, Tennessee. Mr. Handy wrote a political campaign song, “Mr Crump”, that became “Memphis Blues.” He composed his most famous song “St. Louis Blues” a few years later. 

W.C. Handy Home and Historical Marker

Five things to know about W.C. Handy:

  1. He was a founding member of American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP)
  2. The foxtrot was derived from his Beale Street composition. 
  3. In 1958 Hollywood made an inaccurate movie of his life titled “St. Louis Blues” starring Nat “King” Cole, Eartha Kitt, Ruby Dee, Cab Calloway, Mahalia Jackson, and Pearl Bailey. 
  4. He started his own publishing business, Handy Brothers Music Company, that continues to publish today.
  5. The W.C. Handy Music Festival is held each July throughout the Shoals area of Alabama.

I’ve never attended the festival because I am unable to do outdoor things in the summer due to my lymphedema. However, there seems to be multiple indoor options based on last year’s event so I’ll check it out next year. There is also a birthday celebration for Mr. Handy at the museum each November 16th. 

Mr Handy continued to compose and publish music throughout his life, even as he faced blindness. He became completely blind after a fall in 1943 and his book Unsung American Sung was published in 1944. Mr Handy died on March 28, 1958 and is buried in the Bronx. 

Mr. Handy’s life story is amazing to me. He knew at an early age what his passion and gifts were, and although he often had to work around financial and familial barriers, he continued to pursue music. And he was right to do so! I don’t know if his religious family ever came around and appreciate the music he created. I don’t know if they continued to think his music and musical instruments were “sinful.” Imagine being told the gift your Creator gave you was bad and wrong! But the world is grateful to him because his musical invention is the undertone of so many other forms of music.

The museum is anchored by a historical reproduction of his childhood home. You’ll walk through the modern building and see glass cases filled with images of his family, handwritten scores, and records. There are a few rooms where films about his life are on rotation and you can get a sense of what his young life was like in the old cabin.

W.C. Handy Roots of American Music Trail

The museum is located at 620 West College Street, Florence, Alabama 35630 and operates Tuesday through Friday from 10:AM until 4:00PM. Tickets may be purchased here.

Have you visited the museum or attended the Festival? What was your most musical moment?