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W.C. Handy Birthplace

W.C. Handy Birthplace - Florence, AL

William Christopher Handy, widely honored as the “Father of the Blues,” was born in this house on November 16, 1873. In his autobiography, Handy traced the key events in his discovery of the blues back to his time in the Mississippi Delta, beginning in 1903. He also wrote that the music he had heard as a child in Florence “generated the motif for my blues.” Here he also received the musical training in school and church that prepared him for his illustrious career.

W. C. Handy started on his path to worldwide fame in the blues here in Florence, where he heard work songs and field hollers and learned hymns and spirituals while serving as the organist at his father’s A.M.E. church. His schoolmaster, Young A. Wallace, also taught him hymns and classical music. His father and Wallace opposed Handy’s desire to pursue a career in music, however, and Handy wrote that when he brought a guitar home, his father, Charles Handy, called it “one of the devil’s playthings.” But he continued to be inspired by the secular music of fiddle players Jim Turner and Uncle Whit Walker and by the songs of laborers he heard in Florence, Muscle Shoals and Bessemer. Even the sounds of birds, frogs and farm animals were music to his ears. As he began to play cornet and travel, he assimilated more music in St. Louis; Evansville, Indiana; and Henderson, Kentucky; and on tour with Mahara’s Minstrels, that he would later use in his blues compositions and adaptations.

Handy, who had been playing marches, waltzes, rags, classics and popular music, moved to Clarksdale, Mississippi, to lead a band in 1903. In the nearby town of Cleveland, he was stunned when a crowd showered Prince McCoy’s ragged local trio with coins for playing music he described as “long associated with cane rows and levee camps.” A guitarist at a train station in Tutwiler playing what he called “the weirdest music I had ever heard” also left a lasting impression on Handy. Such songs, he wrote, “set the mood for what we now call blues. My own fondness for this sort of thing began in Florence. . . . In the Delta, however, I suddenly saw the songs with the eye of a budding composer.”

In 1905 Handy moved to Memphis, where he and a partner, Harry Pace, founded the first successful black-owned music publishing company. The Pace & Handy firm relocated to New York in 1918 and was reorganized as Handy Brothers Music Company in 1921. Handy’s “Memphis Blues” was among the first blues ever published, in 1912, and his famous “St. Louis Blues” ranks as one of the most-recorded songs of all time. Handy became the public voice of the blues, often quoted in the press and saluted far and wide for his achievements. He also arranged and published many spirituals. His death in New York on March 28, 1958, came less than two weeks before the premiere of the Hollywood film based on his life, St. Louis Blues, starring Nat King Cole. At Handy’s instruction, all of his possessions were put into a boxcar and sent by rail to Florence. The W.C. Handy Music Festival was founded here with the help of Sheffield jazz musician Willie Ruff in 1982.

Other Florence natives who contributed to the recording, producing or songwriting of Mississippi blues and rhythm & blues include Sam Phillips (1923-2003), founder of Sun Records in Memphis, and Frank “Frank-O” Johnson (born in 1950). Phillips recorded B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Elvis Presley and many other Mississippi-born blues and rock ’n’ roll artists at his studio in the 1950s. Johnson worked as a songwriter for Malaco Records in Jackson, Mississippi, and recorded for the Jackson-based Traction and Ace labels before launching his own Phat Sound label and creating a syndicated radio show. Tommy Couch, a co-founder of Malaco, was born in Tuscumbia in 1942.

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