“If Beale Street could talk
Married men would have to take up their beds and walk…”
Beale Street Blues
W. C. Handy wrote those words when he was living in Memphis in 1916. It had been a long road from Florence, Alabama, to Memphis, Tennessee, only about a hundred miles as the crow flies, but Handy had arrived, horn in hand, by way of Chicago and Cuba and all manner of points in between.
He had had a rough go of it in St. Louis after his quartet broke up. They had “hoboed” as Handy called it to Chicago to play at the World’s Fair, but as luck would have it, the exhibition buildings were not all completed by October of 1882 and the fair was postponed until 1893. Times got better when he moved to Evansville, Indiana, and while performing in Henderson, KY, he met and married Elizabeth Price. That same year, 1896, he began touring with the Mahara’s Minstrels, but touring was not easy on a young couple.
When the Minstrels came through Huntsville, Alabama, in 1900, Handy and his wife decided to stay with his relatives in nearby Florence. His first child was born June 29, 1900, and that same year Handy was offered a job as band director and teacher of music at Alabama A&M.
Handy remained for two years at A&M, but he and the administration did not see eye to eye regarding the value of American music. After another brief tour with the Minstrels (this time the Pacific Northwest), Handy took a position as the director of a band in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and it was in Mississippi ( in the little town of Tutweiler) that he heard an itinerate street musician playing with just a guitar and a knife blade. He was singing “Where the Southern meets the Yellow Dog…” (both the Southern and the Yellow Dog are railroads), and like Robert Johnson meeting the devil at the crossroads, it was a sound that would stay with Handy for the rest of his life and would be reborn as “Yellow Dog Blues.”
Six years after relocating to Clarksdale, Handy moved to Memphis, and it was there he found his “voice.” It was an ironic beginning to his blues writing career that a “stump” song (“Mr. Crump”) would be transformed into the blues classic “Memphis Blues.” In the decade between 1909 (when he wrote the infamous “Mr. Crump” for Boss Crump’s mayoral campaign) and 1919, Handy became a serious songwriter and publisher.
Later in his life Handy would be referred to as the “father of the blues,” not because he created the blues but because he was the first musician to codify the blues, taking that ubiquitous yet elusive music from the oral tradition—the cotton fields and back roads—and making it accessible to the public market. The soon-to-be-great classical composer William Grant Still, who would be declared “the dean of African-American composers,” worked with him in Memphis as an arranger in 1916 and later, when Handy moved to New York City, worked with him there as well.
Handy moved to New York in 1918 and called Manhattan home for the rest of his life. When he turned 84 (completely blind and in a wheelchair), 800 persons attended his birthday celebration at the Waldorf-Astoria.
Florence, Alabama, never forgot its native son. The log cabin where Handy was born on November 16, 1873, has been restored and preserved as a museum. The museum houses the most complete collection in the world of Handy’s personal papers and artifact making the library a valuable resource center for African American history. A 1,447 square foot building was added to the property to accommodate the items Handy left to the museum after his death, including his famous trumpet and the piano on which he composed “St Louis Blues.” Each year on his birthday there is a celebration at the museum.
In 1982 citizens of the Shoals formed the Music Preservation Society, and shortly afterward, the Society sponsored the first annual W. C. Handy Music Festival. The festival was a three day event featuring the great trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie as the headliner. It was a grand occasion. I know, because I was there!
Since that day twenty-five years ago, the festival has evolved to become a week long celebration with over 250 events, including venues all over the Shoals. The festival has showcased such luminaries as Roberta Flack, Nancy Wilson, Percy Sledge, Ellis Marsalis, and Huntsville’s own Ken Watters, to mention only a few. The W. C. Handy Music Festival or Handyfest is recognized as a major music event in the south east and is listed as one of the top ten events in Alabama.
This annual festival takes place in Florence and the surrounding area during the last week in July. The dates this year are July 22-29. A complete schedule is available on the Festival web site along with information about numerous other fascinating points of interest in the Quad Cities (Florence, Tuscumbia, Sheffield, and Muscle Shoals.)
W. C. Handy published his autobiography Father of the Blues in 1941. The book opens with the words “Where the Tennessee River, like a silver snake, winds her way through the red clay hills of Alabama sits high on these hill, my hometown. Florence.”
In the pages that follow he writes of his struggle to reconcile the music he wanted to play with the attitude of his father, a minister, who considered the guitar he brought home at age 12 to be the “devil’s plaything.” The guitar was banished and young Handy was provided with organ lessons. A few years, later when Handy was able to procure a cornet, he did not show it to his father.
The story has a happy ending. Handy’s father attended one of the Mahara’s Minstrels performances when they were touring in Alabama. He walked up to William and said “Sonny, I haven't been in a show since I professed religion. I enjoyed it. I am very proud of you and I forgive you for becoming a musician." Strange and happy words from a man who once told his young son that he'd rather follow his hearse than see him follow music.
The “Father of the Blues” died a just a few months after his 84th birthday of bronchial pneumonia. At his funeral service at the First Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, the minister said, "Gabriel now has an understudy. When the last trumpet shall sound, Handy will blow the last blues."
Handy once said that life was like his old horn; if you don't put something into it, you don't get anything out.
--Penne J. Laubenthal