“With all their differences, my forebears had one thing in common: if they had any musical talent, it remained buried.” So wrote William Christopher Handy in his autobiography in discussing the absence of music in his home life as a child. Born in northern Alabama in 1873, Handy was raised in a middle-class African-American family that intended for him a career in the church. To them and to his teachers, W.C. Handy wrote, “Becoming a musician would be like selling my soul to the devil.” It was a risk that the young Handy decided to take. He was internationally famous by the time he wrote his 1941 memoir, Father of the Blues, although “Stepfather” might have been a more accurate label for the role he played in bringing Blues into the musical mainstream. The significance of his role is not to be underestimated, however. W.C. Handy, one of the most important figures in 20th-century American popular music history, died in New York City on March 28, 1958.
While Handy’s teachers might not have considered a career in music to be respectable, they provided him with the tools that made his future work possible. Naturally blessed with a fantastic ear, Handy was drilled in formal musical notation as a schoolboy. “When I was no more than ten,” Hand wrote in Father of the Blues, I could catalogue almost any sound that came to my ears, using the tonic sol-fa system. I knew the whistle of each of the river boats on the Tennessee….Even the bellow of the bull became in my mind a musical note, and in later years I recorded this memory in the ‘Hooking cow Blues.'” The talent and the inclination to take the traditional black music he heard during his years as a traveling musician and capture it accurately in technically correct sheet music would be Handy’s great professional contribution. It not only made the music that came to be called “the Blues” playable by other professional musicians, but it also added the fundamental musical elements of the Blues into the vocabulary of professional song-composers. Jazz standards “The Memphis Blues” and “St. Louis Blues” are the most famous of Handy’s own compositions, but his musical legacy can be heard in the works of composers as varied as George Gershwin and Keith Richards.
More than 25,000 mourners filled the streets around Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church for the funeral of W.C. Handy, who died at the age of 85 on this day in 1958.