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28th Handy Blues Fest in Florence, Alabama, July 17-26

Posted: Jul 16, 2009

W. C. Handy's autobiography Father of the Blues published in 1941, opens with these 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.”

This weekend marks the beginning of the entertainment extravaganza known as the W. C. Handy Music Festival held annually in Florence, Alabama, and the surrounding area. One of the special features of this year's festival is a production of "Halley's Comet," a one man play written and directed by the inimitable John Amos. Amos is this year's festival headliner.

“If Beale Street could talk /Married men would have to take up their beds and walk…” W. C. Handy wrote in the song "Beale Street Blues" when 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.

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.

Handy moved to New York in 1918 and called Manhattan home until he died. When he turned 84 (completely blind and in a wheelchair), 800 persons attended his birthday celebration at the Waldorf-Astoria. But 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 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 his autobiography, Handy 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.

But the story had a happy ending. Handy's father was able to say to his son after finally seeing him perform, “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

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