Jazz Great William Christopher Handy achieved fame for his early jazz compositions at the turn of the century and on September 28, 1912, he published his rousing “Memphis Blues” which has become an important classic in American music history.
W.C. Handy was born in 1873 in the northwest corner of Alabama in the rural community of Florence. Growing up in the segregated South just eight years after the end of the Civil War was fraught with challenges but Handy’s love of music helped him to not only rise above prejudice but also provided him with an outlet for expressing his creativity.
Both Handy’s father and grandfather had been devout preachers with the African Methodist Episcopal Church and, with an influence from years spent in the church, young W.C. displayed an early talent for music.
He was encouraged to sing and play by his beloved grandmother. However, his strict father, Charles Barnard Handy, believed that popular music, unlike hymns in sung in the church, could have a corrupting influence on his son’s life. Young Handy continued to play the organ in church but he also loved to sing barbershop harmony with classmates and learned to play the cornet in his school.
Handy was a good student and earned a teaching certificate from the Huntsville, Teacher’s Agricultural and Mechanical College but Handy’s heart was still beating with the notes and rhythms of music.
Leaving a traditional teaching job behind, Handy traveled around the South and into the Midwest, earning a living playing and singing with several bands. Living and working with musicians, he expanded his knowledge of music, particularly of African-American folk songs and spirituals and he began composing his own tunes.
At the age of 39, Handy published his own composition, “Memphis Blues” and two years later in 1914, he would publish his most famous composition, “St. Louis Blues”. Handy teamed up with Harry Pace to found the Pace & Handy Music Company in Memphis and later moved their successful music publishing company to New York City in the heart of Times Square.
Although his musical talent had brought Handy fame and fortune, his life was not without tragedy. He was left temporarily blind following an infection in his eye and his partner, Harry Pace, broke away from the partnership to found a competing music publishing company.
Thankfully, his brother and sister-in-law stepped up to help Handy run the publishing company and, as their business improved, W.C. and his brother Charles established the Handy Brothers Music Company.
In 1928, W.C. Handy, was booked to play his blues music in a concert at Carnegie Hall – a remarkable achievement for a man who had began his life in the Reconstruction South following the strife and bitter wounds of a nation which had been divided by Civil War.
Handy’s extraordinary musical talent helped to popularize jazz around the world.
Handy would go on to record his musical hits on records in the early 1920s and won such acclaim that he earned the title of “Father of the Blues”.
In addition to his musical talent, W.C. Handy was also, according to the Alabama Prince Hall Grand Lodge, a member of the Family of Freemasonry through his membership as a Prince Hall Mason.
Following the Civil War, many African-American men sought to expand their lives to better serve their communities by becoming Prince Hall Masons. Prince Hall Masonry dates back to pre-Revolutionary days in Boston, Massachusetts, when an African-American abolitionist, Prince Hall, organized a lodge based on the precepts of Freemasonry.
In Alabama after the close of the Civil War, many former enslaved men and their descendants strived to lift themselves and their communities up from the evils of slavery to enrich and expand cultural opportunities to not only emancipated men but also for their descendants and for the empowerment and enrichment of generations to come.
Living out his final years in New York, Handy also had to overcome greater challenges including injuries from a fall onto the tracks in the subway which left him permanently blind.
Despite his blindness, Handy continued to perform including appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show and at the inaugural ball honoring President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
W.C. Handy passed away on March 28, 1958 and his life achievements were honored by music lovers around the world as well as his brothers from the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge – a national fraternal organization with lodges around the USA.
Aside from W.C. Handy, many prominent African-Americans in Alabama had became members of the Prince Hall Masons including educator and advisor to Presidents, Booker T. Washington; civil rights leader, Arthur Shores; and Baptist minister and leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, Ralph Abernathy.
Handy’s life and musical genius is honored at the W.C. Handy Musical Festival, sponsored by the Music Preservation Society, a non-profit agency, each year in Handy’s hometown of Florence, Alabama. Performing musicians now expand the musical offerings at the festival to recognize the influence of early jazz on contemporary music including gospel, R&B, soul, and rock music. What a wonderful tribute for a man who put everything he had into the music that he loved.
“Life is like a trumpet. If you don’t put anything into it, you don’t get anything out of it.”
– W.C. Handy