Biography of Father of the Blues William Christopher Handy Part 2

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



Until then, every known band played only what was set before it in black and white. With the first performances of "Mr. Crump," however, something new occurred. The band members deviated from the score; each one put in his own "licks" and tried to fill the breaks at the end of the lines more ingeniously than anyone else. Soon they were taking turns, chorus by chorus, in solo variations on the theme. Out of this style was born instrumental jazz improvisation.

But Handy couldn't find a publisher for "Mr. Crump." He rewrote it as an instrument piece, retitled it "Memphis Blues," and finally it sold to a white promoter for $100. It was published in New York and reaped a fortune for its new owners.

Handy then wrote his masterpiece, "St. Louis Blues," in 1914, but again he failed to interest a single publisher. This time he published it himself, and the song sold more records, in its time, than any other single piece of music, popular or serious.

Handy thus became the first composer, historian, and popularizer of the blues. When the "father of the blues," as he was now called, moved his publishing firm to New York, everybody was trying to write blues songs, including Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, and George Gershwin. Tin Pan Alley was soon grinding out the blues just as it had produced ragtime 20 years before.

Handy continued to write successful blues tunes, marches, and orchestral music. He edited several anthologies of blues songs and spirituals and wrote an autobiography, Father of the Blues. His life story was dramatized in the film St. Louis Blues (1958), which starred Nat "King" Cole in the role of Handy.

During the last years of his life, although totally blind, Handy managed to play the trumpet, perform on radio and television, and run his publishing business. He died in New York on Mar. 28, 1958.

Handy was considered presumptuous, by some critics, for accepting the title of father of the blues; after all, the blues had been sung long before Handy wrote some of them down and copyrighted them. In his defense, however, Handy never pretended that his compositions were original. Rather than the father, Handy was the exponent of the blues; the aesthetic credit properly belongs to the performers themselves.

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