Biography of Father of the Blues William Christopher Handy Part 1

About the Father of the Blues William Christopher Handy, biography and history of the musician and songwriter that helped create a new musical form.



"I'd rather see you in a hearse than have you become a musician," Reverend Handy, a black Methodist minister, told his son at an early age.

Born and raised in Florence, Ala., young Handy had to pursue his musical interests in secrecy. He would steal down to the river locks to hear the laborers sing. He surreptitiously learned to play the cornet from a white bandmaster, stranded in Florence, who taught in the local barbershop.

Handy became an itinerant musician but soon realized there was no commercial market for the music that really interested him--the wry, racy, sometimes sorrowful tunes perpetuated by roustabouts, honky--tonk singers, and wandering minstrels that would become known as "the blues." Rejected by "respectable" folks of both races, the blues found its audience in saloons, brothels, and railway stations. Handy collected and absorbed snatches of melodies and lyrics and filed them away in his memory.

He organized his first orchestra in Clarksdale, Miss., in 1903--a nine-piece uniformed troupe that was black in color and white in repertoire. While grinding out the Broadway hits one evening at a white society dance in nearby Cleveland, the band was requested to "play some of your own people's music." To demonstrate what the audience wanted, according to Handy, someone produced "three seedy-looking Negroes equipped respectively with guitar, mandolin, and bass viol, who sat themselves down in their uncultured way to commence--and continue--a backyard over-and-over wail that brought in more in tips than the uniforms bore home in pay." Perhaps there were commercial possibilities in the blues after all.

Soon Handy began to search out and anthologize the blues in earnest, questioning singers and jotting down tunes. In Memphis, his band was hired to promote the 1909 mayoral campaign of E. H. "Boss" Crump, who was running on an antiprostitution, clean-up-the-town platform. Inspired by the tunes he'd been collecting, Handy composed a 12-bar blues campaign song, titled "Mr. Crump." Although the lyrics were open to several interpretations, not all of them flattering to Crump, the song caused dancing in the streets and instant celebrity status for its composer.

"Mr. Crump" was the first real blues composition. It captured in fixed form the tonality and rhythm of this theretofore unwritten folk music. Handy even conveyed the blues singer's typical slurring of notes by introducing flatted thirds and sevenths into his scores; these became known as "blue notes" and dotted all the blues compositions that followed.

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