From his earliest days, on visit to his grandfather’s farm near Lock7, he would escape to hear the laborers sing. The syncopating beat of the songs combines with the natural sound of the hoot owls, crickets, bullfrogs, woodpeckers and the whippoorwill, building up in his memory a natural symphony.
He was the son and grandson of ministers and his father hoped he would follow in his footsteps “behind the pulpit”. W.C. had different ides and to his fathers consternation his love of sound would not be thwarted. Florence’s Black public schools boasted a teacher from Fisk University, Y.A. Wallace, who eternally drilled his classes in singing by the tonic sol-fa system. Handy studied under Wallace for eleven years. Thus his early musical grounding was a unique combination of formal training and listening to the haunting strains he heard along the river.
His ability as a composer to combine spirituals of the South, chant melodies from the Congo and to tell the story of the blues honestly and sincerely, demonstrate his genius and established his title as “Father of the Blues”.
He left home at eighteen and hard years followed. In 1909, during the political campaign to elect “Boss” E.H. Crump mayor of Memphis, he wrote “Mr. Crump.” It was re-written and given new words and eventually became the classic “Memphis Blues” which was the first written popular song to include a jazz “break” – as the wildly filled-in pauses was named.
Out of work in St. Louis, Handy, while bedding down for the night on a riverfront levee of cobblestones he heard a man say, “I hate to see that evening sun go down.” Handy says, “This misery bore fruit in song.” He later used this in his greatest work, “Saint Louis Blues,” written in 1914, this same year he wrote “Yellow Dog Blues.” During his lifetime he wrote more than 150 secular and sacred musical compositions. In 1918 he opened a publishing firm in New York and ran it on Broadway as Handy Brothers Music Company, Inc. He carried it on through two onsets of blindness, the second of which was permanent.
Mr. Handy died on March 28, 1958 in New York City. “If my serenade of song and story should server as a pillow for some composer’s head, as yet perhaps unborn, to dream and build on our folk melodies in his tomorrow, I have not labored in vain.”
The most complete collection Mr. Handy’s personal papers and artifacts in the world are housed in the museum. Through the interest of the Handy family, his wife, W.C. Handy, Jr., Lucille and Katherine Handy and his brother Charles B. Handy, donations include his famous trumpet, his personal piano, handwritten sheet music, his library, citations from famous people, photographs, household furnishing and a wealth of memorabilia.
620 W. College Street
Florence, Alabama 35630