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February 1997

Portrait of W.C. Handy

Autographed Photograph: W. C. Handy
Date: September 21, 1948
ID: 95.124.2

Dubbed "The Father of the Blues" although perhaps somewhat erroneously, W. C. Handy is largely responsible for the form of blues we know today. Musician, composer, conductor, and publisher, Handy, although he didn't invent the blues, did faithfully and accurately transcribe the power of this musical expression.

William Christopher Handy was born in Florence, Alabama November 16, 1873. Denied permission to learn the guitar by his pastor father, Handy bought an old trumpet which he stole away to practice. He eventually became a freelance musician, and then a leader of his own band in 1896. His travels as a struggling musician throughout the South exposed him to two new emerging forms of music, ragtime and more importantly jazz.

By 1909, Handy had settled in Memphis where his dance band popularized some of the African American folk songs and rural blues he had heard in his early travels in the South. That same year, Memphis mayoral candidate E. H. "Boss" Crump commissioned Handy to write a campaign song. The tune "Mr. Crump" eventually became "Memphis Blues," and in 1912 was Handy's breakthrough. This was followed by "St. Louis Blues," an incredible success and the first commercial blues tune to reach a national audience. In 1926, Handy published Blues: An Anthology, a collection of traditional blues which provided a keystone of African American heritage for the Harlem Renaissance and awoke the white world to black folk music.

Handy began to lose his sight in the 1930s, and was probably completely blind at the time this portrait was taken. One of first songwriters to use 'blue notes' (flatted thirds and sevenths), purists do not consider Handy's own compositions as "true" blues, but his transcriptions did establish the now accepted twelve-bar blues - one of the most dynamic and versatile forms of music in the world.

A Brief List of W. C. Handy Compositions

  • "Yellow Dog Blues" (1914)
  • "Joe Turner Blues" (1915)
  • "Hail to the Spirit of Freedom" (1915)
  • "The Hesitating Blues" (1915)
  • "Beale Street Blues" (1917)
  • "Long Gone" (1920)
  • "Aunt Hagar's Blues" (1920)
  • "Loveless Love" (1921 - Ray Charles recorded as "Careless Love" in 1960)
  • "John Henry Blues" (1922)
  • "Atlanta Blues" (1924)
  • "Friendless Blues" (1926)
  • "Chantez la bas" (1931)


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