RSM Profile: W.C. Handy

Photo by Wayne Hsieh (via Creative Commons license)

He was born in Florence, Alabama and educated in Huntsville, but his career took him to Memphis. Whatever happened along that journey of what would become Highway 78 changed the world of music forever.

His name was William Christopher Handy, but the world knew him as W.C. Told by his grandmother that he would have a talent for music because of his “big ears,” Handy began making a mental a catalog of the sounds he heard, even picturing the notes of birds’ songs on a scale according to his autobiography.

Born in Florence in 1873, he later studied at the Teachers Agricultural and Mechanical College in Huntsville with plans to become a teacher. But music was his calling, and the world around him proved a far more influential schoolhouse. According to Handy himself, the sounds of nature …

“… all built up with in my consciousness as a natural symphony. Nature was my kindergarten.”

In 1896, Handy became a bandleader for the first time. His stints in various bands led him fatefully to the banks of the Mississippi in Memphis, Tennessee. There he wrote his first song in 1909. It was a campaign song for a mayoral campaign. The song was entitled “Mr. Crump,” but would later become famous under a new title. That song was “Memphis Blues” – widely considered the first blues song ever written.¬†Musicologists also credit Handy with writing the “first jazz break” into “Memphis Blues.”

Bigger hits followed, resulting in Handy creating his won music publishing company. (He had sold the rights to “Memphis Blues” to a white entrepreneur. However, the inclusion of new lyrics that referred to the “Handy Band” playing the “Memphis Blues” may have been more valuable than the rights would have been.) “St. Louis Blues” may have been Handy’s biggest hit with “Beale Street Blues” close on its heels.

Handy’s critics charge that he was not so much of an original composer as a collector of varied influences. “Mr. Crump,” for example, drew on the decades old folk tune that would later grow into the blues standard “Mama Don’t Allow.” Even if Handy were doing little more than collecting rhythms, melodies and chord progressions from other sources and combining them in new ways – even if he were simply archiving folk traditions – his contribution to American and world music history is immeasurable in its vast scope.

John Lennon once said there would have been no Beatles without Elvis. There would have been no Elvis without the influence of the blues. And there would have been no blues as we know it without W.C. Handy. The next time you’re in Memphis, take a stroll down Beale Street to the park that bears his name and tip your hat to the statue of W.C. Handy.

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