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The Determination of W.C. Handy


One of the first things that visitors to downtown Florence may notice is a statue at the entrance to Wilson Park. WC Handy welcomes visitors to the park holding his trumpet high. At his feet is a list of his most popular songs as well as his moniker, “Father of the Blues.”

November marks the 150th anniversary of Handy’s birth. A good place to start in understanding the legacy of WC Handy is by visiting Florence’s WC Handy Museum. The building also contains his log cabin birthplace and is run by the non-profit WC Handy and Cabin Foundation. Algene Norwood is the retired curator and manager of the museum and has been telling the stories of WC Handy for many years.

Joe Moody

“His grandfather built the two-room log cabin. There was a grandfather, the grandmother, the mother, the father, and WC that lived in the two-room cabin,” Norwood says, “Yeah, his grandfather was a slave, and his grandfather was also a minister and WC’s father was a minister.”

Dr. Carlos R. Handy is the co-president of the WC Handy and Cabin Foundation. He is a physics professor and the grandson of WC Handy.

“Until his time, you know, America knew nothing about black music," Dr. Handy said. "They basically sneered at it because my grandfather was basically among the first generation of free born ex-former slaves. You know, obviously, in the South, you know, you hear the chants of the field hollers, the black laborers. He liked the way blacks sang, they're phraseology, the rhythms that they put forth.”

“You better believe that most the sharecroppers, the black ones, Friday and Saturday, they had a juke joint somewhere where they’d fry fish, and they sang, you know, played the blues on the harmonica…” Norwood says, “He was not even allowed to walk by one of these places, because he was a preacher's son. So, on Friday or Saturday nights, sometimes when he was a kid, they would go to bed at night, he would sneak out the cabin, and he would come down the hill, and he would find one of these juke joints, but he would crawl up underneath the house, and he would lay up underneath the house, listening at them just sing the blues. He was just determined. And I think what inspires me most about him, I like his music, but his determination.”

Part of the determination that Norwood speaks of persisted in lieu of the fact that his father forbade his son to choose music as a career. According to Norwood, “He told him he’d rather see him dead than… walk behind a hearse rather than to see him play music.”

William Ruff is an accomplished musician in his own right. Ruff is also a native of the Shoals and has had an incredible career from time spent playing with Benny Carter to Dizzy Gillespie and Lionel Hampton just to name a few. His discography includes a long list of accomplishments including three albums with Miles Davis.

Algene Norwood and William Ruff in front of W.C. Handy's piano
Joe Moody
Algene Norwood and William Ruff in front of W.C. Handy's piano

Ruff said that Handy’s father told his son that music would take him to the gutter and quotes Handy as saying that music did take him to the gutter when he had to “sleep on the levy.” He mentioned that the opening lyrics of the “St. Louis Blues” (“I hate to see that evening sun go down”) were written from having to “sleep on the cold cobblestones of St. Louis.”

Ruff is referring to a period of homelessness that Handy experienced after leaving home to be a musician against his father’s wishes. This period of sleeping under a bridge in St Louis would result later in his career as one of the world’s most popular songs: the Saint Louis Blues.

“If you didn’t know St Louis Blues, you didn’t know anything.” Ruff says. “We all knew who he was, you know, he was the man!”

According to Dr. Handy, “He deliberately left the lyrics to be the way blacks spoke because he said that often blacks in their particular English dialect, if you want to call it that, could actually convey more efficiently emotion that well spoken English could not convey. So, he added the lyrics. The lyrics are all his and he tried to be as authentic to black culture as he possibly could be.”

Dr. Carlos Handy says his grandfather’s determination eventually paid off. After having success with a publishing company in Memphis, WC Handy moved the office to Times Square in New York City. “Whereas Memphis in some sense gave my grandfather national visibility, New York City essentially gave my grandfather international visibility and I understand that, around 1919, out of the top twenty hits, half were my grandfather’s music,” Dr. Handy said. “When the Marines took over Iwo Jima and they started, you know, imprisoning if you will, the Japanese soldiers, to their amazement, in one of the caves, or one of the structures, the Japanese were playing my grandfather’s music and it just attests to the significance of his music that it permeated all cultures.”

Even in his later years, his hardships would not end but his determination continued to pull him through. After losing his sight in the 1940s, WC Handy continued to work- even composing and publishing in braille. November 16th marks 150 years since the birth of WC Handy, a man whose determination pulled him up from homelessness to being recognized as the "Father of the Blues."

“For me, the single most important contribution that he made,” Dr. Handy said, “was asserting the musical artistry of black music.”

Joe Moody is a senior news producer and host for Alabama Public Radio. Before joining the news team, he taught academic writing for several years nationally and internationally. Joe has a Master of Arts in foreign language education as well as a Master of Library and Information Studies. When he is not playing his tenor banjo, he enjoys collecting and listening to jazz records from the 1950s and 60s.
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