Listen to 1921 recording of “St. Louis Blues” by Original Dixieland Jazz Band, with Al Bernard
William Christopher “W.C.” Handy, acknowledged ‘Father of the Blues’ and composer of such American musical standards as St. Louis Blues and Beale Street Blues, was born on November 16, 1873, in Florence, AL.
He grew up in a log cabin his grandfather had built on what is now College Street. His father served as pastor of Greater St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, where sacred hymns and spirituals sowed early seeds of musical inspiration in young W.C.
“[My grandmother] was the first to suggest that my big ears indicated a talent for music,” Handy explained in his autobiography. “This thrilled me…When I was no more than ten, I could catalogue almost any sound that came to my ears… I knew the whistle of each of the river boats on the Tennessee… Whenever I heard the song of a bird and the answering call of its mate, I could visualize the notes in scale… All built up within my consciousness as a natural symphony. This was the primitive prelude to the mature melodies now recognized as the blues. Nature was my kindergarten…”
As he grew older, Handy’s musical tastes stretched beyond the spiritual confines of his father’s church. In his leisure time, Handy loved listening to black field workers and dockhands sing secular songs of toil, strife, hope and joy.
“The trumpet playing of Mr. Claude Seals fired my imagination… Almost immediately I set my heart on owning a trumpet. Since buying one was out of the question, I tried making my own by hollowing a cow horn and cutting the tip into a mouthpiece. The finished product was a useful hunting horn but certainly not a trumpet. I decided to content myself for the time being with the hope of a guitar.”
However, musical talent, especially the playing of musical instruments, was frowned upon by his family and church.
Despite Handy’s lack of encouragement, he secretly saved the money he made by picking berries and nuts and making lye soap.
“Work meant nothing now. It was a means to an end. But saving was slow and painful… Setting my mind on a musical instrument was like falling in love. All the world seemed bright and changed… With a guitar I would be able to express the things I felt in sounds, I grew impatient as my small savings grew.
“I selected the instrument I wanted and went often to gaze at it loving through the shop window. The days dragged… The name of my ailment was longing, and it was not cured till I finally went to the department store and counted out the money in small coins before the dismayed clerk.
“A moment later, the shining instrument under my arm, I went out and hurried up Court Street. My heart was a leaf… When I came to the house, I held up the instrument before the eyes of the astonished household. I couldn’t speak. I was too full, too overjoyed…”
His family had a slightly different reaction. Handy’s father made him take the guitar back and exchange it for a dictionary.
Ultimately, over his father’s objections, Handy did buy a trumpet and left Florence to pursue his musical dreams.
W.C. Handy has been credited with having single-handedly introduced a new style of music to the world. But he was quick to acknowledge that he did not invent the blues, but merely transcribed them and presented them to a worldwide audience.
“You’ve got to appreciate the things that come from the art of the Negro,” he observed, “and from the heart of the man farthest down.”
“Father of the Blues: An Autobiography of W.C. Handy,” by W.C. Handy,Macmillan Co, 1947