W. C. Handy Music Festival

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W. C. Handy Music Festival

Date Observed: Last week in July
Location: Florence, Alabama

The W. C. Handy Music Festival, sponsored by the Music Preservation Society, is held in the Shoals area of Florence, Alabama. The week-long event honors the man known as the "Father of the Blues."

Historical Background

Born in a log cabin on November 16, 1873, in Florence, Alabama, William Christopher Handy was the son of Charles Bernard Handy and Elizabeth Brewer Handy, former slaves. William's father and grandfather were African Methodist Episcopal (AME) ministers.

While growing up, Handy often heard spirituals at the AME church and the chants of black field or dock workers along the Tennessee River, which added to his innate interest in music. He noted in his autobiography that, at the young age of 10,

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. . . . I could tell what the birds in the orchards and woodlands were singing. . . .

Whenever I heard the song of a bird and the answering call of its mate, I could visualize the notes in the scale. Robins carried a warm alto theme. Bobolinks sang contrapuntal melodies. Mocking birds trilled cadenzas. Altogether, as I fancied, they belonged to a great outdoor choir.

Handy saved money that he earned at various jobs to buy a guitar. But when he brought the guitar home, his father was incensed, claiming the instrument was used to play secular music, which he considered part of the devil's work. Reverend Handy ordered his son to take the guitar back to the store, and then provided organ lessons for him.

The organ music did not appeal to young Handy, and the lessons did not last long. But as a teenager, Handy heard a trumpeter who visited Florence, and he decided to buy a coronet and learn to play it. Under the guidance of a Fisk University professor, he mastered the fundamentals of music and began performing with a local band. He also sang first tenor with a quartet.

Handy left Alabama in 1892 and traveled with various bands for several years. He married Elizabeth Price in 1898, and from 1900 to 1902, he taught music at a college in Huntsville, Alabama. He left teaching to establish his own jazz band, which was common for professional musicians of the time.

Once, while performing in Mississippi, a local blues band played during a break, and Handy saw that the audience loved the music, which had what has been called a "raw, primitive" sound, reflecting the hardship of blacks in America. He also realized that the blues could be commercially successful, and he began to compose his own renditions.

By this time - about 1905 - Handy had made his home in Memphis, Tennessee, where he met Harry Pace, a lyricist. The two collaborated in writing songs, eventually forming the Pace and Handy Music Company-Publishers. In 1909 Handy was asked to write a campaign song for a mayoral candidate, Edward Crump. The song, titled "Mr. Crump," was later published with new lyrics as "Memphis Blues." Thus Handy introduced the blues style to national - and then worldwide - audiences. Other compositions followed, such as "Beale Street Blues," "Yellow Dog Blues," "Mississippi Blues," and the world-renowned "St. Louis Blues," which jazz vocalist Bessie Smith recorded in the mid-1920s, helping to popularize the tune (see also Bessie Smith Strut).

In 1918 the Pace and Handy Music Company moved to New York, but the company disbanded in 1920. Pace established a record company, and the Handy family maintained the publishing firm. During the 1920s, Handy continued to compose music and lead his band. He also supported numerous other black musicians and wrote Blues: An Antholo- gy, published in 1926. Several other books by Handy about African-American music and composers were issued in the 1930s. In 1941 his autobiography Father of the Blues was published.

Handy was honored in many ways during his lifetime as well as after his death in 1958. In Florence, Alabama, Handy's home and museum memorialize him, and across the United States his name graces schools, streets, parks, and other public places. A statue of Handy stands in Wilson Park in downtown Florence.

Creation of the Festival

In 1982 the Music Preservation Society of the Alabama Shoals - a quad-city area that includes Florence, Muscle Shoals, Sheffield, and Tuscumbia - staged its first W. C. Handy Music Festival to celebrate the life of the Florence native. Since then, an increasing number of musicians attract thousands of visitors to the Shoals area for the festival. An estimated 150,000 people come from across the United States and other countries.


During the festival more than 200 events take place throughout the Shoals area. The festival celebrates blues, jazz, soul, rhythm and blues, gospel, and contemporary music with concerts, jam sessions, music education programs and panels, exhibits with musical themes, and live music at restaurants and parks. Legendary entertainers have included Eddie Floyd, Ellis Marsalis, Jimmy Smith, Ramsey Lewis, Dizzy Gillespie, Bobby Blue Bland, Diane Schuur, Billy Taylor, Dianne Reeves, and Charlie Byrd. In addition, Songwriters in the Round highlights contemporary songwriters who perform their own songs. Along with musical events, there are such activities as a street strut, golf tournament, a fishing tournament, and a "walk-and-run" foot race.

Contacts and Web Sites

Florence/Lauderdale (County) Tourism One Hightower Place Florence, AL 35630 256-740-4141 or 888-356-8687; fax: 256-740-4142

217 E. Tuscaloosa St. Florence, AL 35630 256-766-7642

W. C. Handy Home, Museum, and Library 620 W. College St. Florence, AL 35630 256-760-6434

Further Reading

Carlin, Richard. "Handy, W. C." In African American Lives, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Handy, D. Antoinette. "W. C. Handy." In Black Heroes, edited by Jessie Carney Smith. Foreword by Nikki Giovanni. Canton, MI: Visible Ink Press, 2001. Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. 3rd ed. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1997.

Writings by W. C. Handy

Blues: An Anthology . 1926. Reprint. Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 2001. Father of the Blues: An Autobiography . 1941. Reprint edited by Arna Wendell Bontemps. Foreword by Abbe Niles. London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1957.
African-American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2007

Handy (W. C.) Music Festival

July or August
The W.C. Handy Music Festival honors the "Father of the Blues" in the Alabama Quad-Cities of Florence, Muscle Shoals, Sheffield, and Tuscumbia in the northwestern part of the state known as Muscle Shoals.
William Christopher Handy, the son and grandson of ministers, was born in 1873 in Florence, took an early interest in music, and went on to become a prolific composer, performer, orchestra leader, and music publisher despite his father's ministerial influence. In 1911, he wrote an election campaign song for Mayor Edward H. "Boss" Crump of Memphis, Tenn., that became known as the "Memphis Blues" and was one of the works that made him famous. Others included the classic "St. Louis Blues," "Beale Street Blues," and "Careless Love."
Handy, working in the period of transition from ragtime to jazz, fused elements of black folk music with ragtime to create distinctive blues pieces. He also organized a publishing firm, issued anthologies of black spirituals and blues and studies of American black musicians, and wrote an autobiography, Father of the Blues, published in 1941. He expressed his philosophy with these words: "Life is like this old trumpet of mine. If you don't put something into it, you don't get nothing out." When Handy died in 1958, a Harlem minister said, "Gabriel now has an understudy."
The festival celebrates not only Handy's musical heritage but also the musical roots of spirituals and jazz. Opening ceremonies are at the W. C. Handy Home & Museum, a log cabin housing Handy's collected papers and memorabilia. His piano and trumpet are on display.
Throughout the festival there is music by nationally known musicians night and day, street dancing, a foot race, folk art exhibits, and music workshops. Events are held in such nontraditional locations as ball fields, parks, and nursing homes, and concerts are performed in the church where Handy's father and grandfather served as pastor, and in restaurants and clubs. The small community of Muscle Shoals, where several events are held, is known in music circles for having given birth to the "Muscle Shoals Sound" through a recording studio that was set up in 1965. Artists as varied as Aretha Franklin, Peggy Lee, Liza Minnelli, Bob Seger, and the Rolling Stones have recorded here.
W. C. Handy Music Festival
217 E. Tuscaloosa St.
Florence, AL 35630
256-766-7642; fax: 256-766-7549
AAH-2007, p. 422
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.