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W. C. Handy

The Life and Times of the Man Who Made the Blues

David Robertson

Publication Year: 2011

David Robertson charts W. C. Handy’s rise from a rural-Alabama childhood in the last decades of the nineteenth century to his emergence as one of the most celebrated songwriters of the twentieth century. The child of former slaves, Handy was first inspired by spirituals and folk songs, and his passion for music pushed him to leave home as a teenager, despite opposition from his preacher father. Handy soon found his way to St. Louis, where he spent a winter sleeping on cobblestone docks before lucking into a job with an Indiana brass band. It was in a minstrel show, playing to racially mixed audiences across the country, that he got his first real exposure as a professional musician, but it was in Memphis, where he settled in 1905, that he hit his full stride as a composer. At once a testament to the power of song and a chronicle of race and black music in America, W. C. Handy’s life story is in many ways the story of the birth of our country’s indigenous culture—and a riveting must read for anyone interested in the history of American music.

Published by: The University of Alabama Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. 2-9


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pp. ix-x

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Prologue: A View of Mr. Handy: One Afternoon in Memphis, 1918

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pp. 3-19

Early afternoons would have been the best time to see William Christopher Handy walking along Beale Avenue. The leader of a cabaret dance band tends to be a late-morning riser, particularly when, like Handy, he has a regular late-night engagement at the Alaskan Roof Garden. ...

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Chapter One: Slavery, the AME Church, and Emancipation: The Handy Family of Alabama, 1811–1873

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pp. 20-31

As a boy growing up in northern Alabama, Handy later wrote, he had learned melody by listening to the birds and other small creatures around his father’s farm on the deceptively peaceful hills overlooking the small town of Florence. “There was a French horn concealed in the breast of the blue jay,” he later recalled. ...

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Chapter Two: W. C. Handy and the Music of Black and White America, 1873–1896

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pp. 32-51

With all their differences, most of my forebears had one thing in common: if they had any musical talent, it remained buried.” So did W. C. Handy, in the middle of his life as a distinguished blues composer, look back in his memoir to his family’s experience of Reconstruction Alabama. ...

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Chapter Three: Jumping Jim Crow: Handy as a Traveling Minstrel Musician, 1896–1900

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pp. 52-73

The ‘Blues’ are ambiguous.” So a successful W. C. Handy would write in a 1919 article to the African American–owned newspaper the Chicago Defender, describing his new music as an admixture of remembered joy and pain. Handy at the time of this article would be more than a decade and a half removed from the young, ...

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Chapter Four: Aunt Hagar’s Ragtime Son Comes Home to Alabama, 1900–1903

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pp. 74-88

The Mahara Company toured the towns of northern Alabama and the Tennessee Valley shortly after its return from Cuba in early 1900. Handy in his memoir of this year includes an account of how his minister father, then living in Huntsville, Alabama, with his recently married second wife, made the momentous decision to attend the Mahara performance ...

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Chapter Five: Where the Southern Crosses the Yellow Dog: Handy and the Mississippi Delta, 1903–1905

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pp. 89-108

When the Mahara troupe stopped in Michigan in 1903, Handy had been tempted by a job offer there to become band director for a local organization of white musicians. But his attention had already been caught by an offer to direct a band organized by the Knights of Pythias, an African American fraternal society, in Clarksdale, Mississippi. ...

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Chapter Six: Mr. Crump Don’t ’Low: The Birth of the Commercial Blues, 1905–1909

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pp. 109-127

The Mississippi Delta has been described as beginning southward from the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis. But with as much accuracy it can be described as terminating there. Memphis, the new city of residence for Handy and his growing family, long had considered its commercial and cultural interests to face as much westward and eastward as southward. ...

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Chapter Seven: Handy’s Memphis Copyright Blues, 1910–1913

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pp. 128-147

“Handy came into my office in 1910, about a year after I was elected,” Edward Crump reminisced in the late 1930s to a Memphis newspaper reporter. Handy must have approached this visit to the new mayor’s office with some trepidation. Even in his initial year of political power, Crump was an intimidating presence. ...

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Chapter Eight: Tempo à Blues: Pace & Handy, Beale Avenue Music Publishers, 1913–1917

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pp. 148-171

W. C. Handy was not the only ambitious black businessman of the time who had moved to Memphis. When W. E. B. Du Bois had obtained financial backing in 1905 to become the publisher of a weekly newspaper for a national African American readership, he had not chosen his own city of Atlanta as the site for his future editorial and business offices. ...

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Chapter Nine: New York City: National Success, the “St. Louis Blues,”and Blues: An Anthology, 1918–1926

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pp. 172-195

Memphis had given much to W. C. Handy in appreciation of his commercial blues. Handy, however, had received his increased earnings as a performer and publisher with the extended hand of his audience, figuratively, half-closed. The Jim Crow codes, although usually enforced with discreet police coercion in Boss Crump’s city, ...

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Chapter Ten: Symphonies and Movies, Spirituals and Politics, and W. C. Handy as Perennial Performer, 1927–1941

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pp. 196-219

Handy, as a composer of the blues, and Niles, as its celebrator, had but one artistic divergence during their friendship of three decades, over the symphonic possibilities of African American music. The published blues were for Niles—like the spirituals of black churches—a seemingly naïve but sophisticated American art ...

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Chapter Eleven: “St. Louis Blues”: The Final Performance, 1958

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pp. 220-232

On a Thursday afternoon, October 28, 1943, W. C. Handy suffered a near-fatal fall from a platform at the 147th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue subway station in New York City. The sixty-nine-year-old composer had been a passenger on a subway train, accompanied by his personal companion, Louise Logan, ...

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pp. 233-234

As biographers research and write, they attempt what Edmund Wilson called the “triple thinking” of literature. There is the studied life of the biographical subject, perceived with all its archetypal and historical episodes; there are also simultaneously the thoughts and incidents of the biographer’s own solitary life; ...


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pp. 235-268

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 269-272


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pp. 273-286

E-ISBN-13: 9780817386047
E-ISBN-10: 0817386041
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817356965
Print-ISBN-10: 0817356967

Page Count: 307
Publication Year: 2011