William Christopher Handy, more commonly known by his initials, earned worldwide recognition as one of the earliest musicians to write and publish blues music. During his life, Handy was called the “Father of the Blues” as a nod to the pioneering role he took in making the folksy blues of the American South accessible to a larger audience. The Amistad Research Center has two small collections of letters and sheet music produced by Handy later in his life.
W.C. Handy was born in Reconstruction-era Alabama. As the son of a church minister, he was introduced to hymns and church music from an early age. Although his parents denounced musicianship as a career, they supported his musical training while encouraging him to attend college and become a schoolteacher. Handy attended Teacher’s Agriculture & Mechanic College in Huntsville, AL (now Alabama A&M in Normal, AL). He did not make it far as a teacher; after taking a teaching exam in Birmingham and learning how little it paid, he instead found work in a factory. He had also made a name for himself as an outstanding cornetist and found the musical life appealing. He joined a traveling band, appearing with Mahara’s Minstrels in the 1890s. In 1900, he was recruited by his alma mater to teach music at the college, but he only taught for two years as he felt he would be better paid as a bandleader. His interest, too, had always been in the American style of music, which at the time was considered inferior to classical European music taught in most schools.
W.C. Handy was already a locally-known cornetist and bandleader when he started to turn his focus to songwriting. One of his earliest songs to be published, “Memphis Blues,” was released in 1912 by music publisher Theron Bennett. The new sound, which was originally advertised as “southern rag,” was not originally a commercial success, and Bennett eventually went out of business. Not long after, Handy and another musician-friend, Henry Pace, founded their own music publishing company in Memphis, TN. With the publication of the song “St. Louis Blues,” Handy found an audience that was interested in this unique style of music he called the “Blues.” The popularity of “St. Louis Blues” gave Handy the opportunity to publish more songs and introduce the music of African American songwriters to the general public. Several of his employees, like Fletcher Henderson and William Grant Still, later went on to achieve their own fame as composers and bandleaders.
After five years on Beale Street in Memphis, Handy moved his music publishing company to the Gaiety Theater Building in New York City. In a letter from 1949, he claims that the move made the Handy Brothers Music Company the first Black-owned business on Broadway. He remained in New York for the remainder of his life, but he remained in personal contact with friends and early supporters. Of the W.C. Handy correspondence held at the Amistad Research Center, the largest collection is letters written to his longtime friend Walter C. Reinhardt, who was also a music publisher in Memphis. In several letters written from one W.C. wrote to the other, he recounts how Reinhardt had showed early support before Handy gained nationwide fame.
Despite an accident in 1943 that left Handy blind and partial paralysis as he grew older, he continued promoting African American music until his death in 1958. According to one article on his funeral, more than 25,000 mourners filled Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church and the surrounding streets to honor him.
Images from the W.C. Handy collection and the Walter C. Reinhardt collection. Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.