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History - William Christopher Handy (1873-1958) "Father of the Blues"


William Christopher (known as “W.C.”) Handy, known to the world as the "Father of the Blues", was born in Florence, Alabama on November 16, 1873.  Handy was exposed to music in the Great St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church where his father and his grandfather served as pastors. The sounds he heard in his hometown influenced and inspired him to create an enduring body of music and garnered him international acclaim. His legacy lives on in the musicians that he influenced, and in the memories of those who spent time with him. His grandson, Dr. Carlos Handy, made this observation: "It took a great, reflective, man to transcend the social strife of his generation, the brutal intolerance of Jim Crow, and stay true to capturing the musical essence of his people. No one else could have done this and imbibe his songs with great, revolutionary, musical form with lyrics that captured the indigenous sentiments of former slaves. It required an educated Black man that could both analyze and assimilate the Black man's musical heritage, imperceptibly, without influencing its form, or perturbing its execution. He embodied what it is to be an American; to overcome the social challenges affecting one's physical, intellectual, and emotional well-being; all in the quest for personal fulfillment and success, eventually becoming our fulfillment and success, and serving to define our national identity."

The following excerpt, taken from his autobiography, tells of his deep and abiding love that started when he was just a boy. In the autobiography titled "W.C. Handy, Father of the Blues", Handy says that it was his grandmother, who…

“was the first to suggest that my big ears indicated a talent for music.  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 riverboats 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…  The trumpet playing of Mr. Claude Seals fired my imagination...  Almost immediately I set my heart on owning a trumpet.  I decided to content myself for the time being with the hope of a guitar.  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…”

As always, the Music Preservation Society extends its sincere appreciation to the family of William Christopher Handy for its continued support of and participation in the W.C. Handy Music Festival. We are honored to have the privilege to celebrate Mr. Handy’s life and the gift of music that he left. We thank you for your participation because you help to make the Festival a success.

Tori Bailey, Festival Chair


History of the Festival

The W. C. Handy Music Festival was initiated with the help of musician and Sheffield native Willie Ruff, who along with Dr. David Mussleman and others, envisioned and helped MPS to present the first W. C. Handy Music Festival. That first Festival was a long weekend of music featuring Dizzy Gillespie as the headliner artist. Since then, the annual celebration has evolved into a ten-day Festival with nearly 200 events. The Festival showcases music at locations throughout northwest Alabama including parks, restaurants, stores, libraries, museums, art galleries, sidewalks, parking lots, and lawns. It also features athletic events, plays, music classes, car shows, and much more.

The Handy Music Festival has been honored by state and local government, and has been selected as a Top Ten Event in Alabama, and named Event of the Year by Alabama Bureau of Tourism and Travel; a Location/Destination on the National Geographic Appalachian Regional Commission's Featured Sites Map; a three-time Cultural Olympiad Designee by Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games; Alabama Mountain Lakes Peak Award Winner; and a Top Twenty event in the Southeast since 1986 by Southeast Tourism Society.

Click here to read a biography of W.C. Handy written by Terry Pace, educator and Muscle Shoals music historian.


W.C. Handy Video Files

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>> Music festival history
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>> Father of the Blues
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>> Handy's first music teacher

Frequently Asked Questions
Click here to read answers to our most asked questions.


W.C. Handy Festival Archive Links

Click here for previous festival events and photos (archives from 2003-08).


Click here to view the W.C. Handy Music Festival Headliners Roster (covers years 1982 through 2012)


 

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