W. C. Handy, His Music, His Life and Beale Street

W. C. (William Christopher) Handy is revered as one of the originators of a particularly American form of popular music, the blues. In fact, in his autobiography, he assumed the mantle of "Father of the Blues." Born in Florence, Alabama in 1873, he was the son of ex slaves who felt that secular music was immoral. Handy's first musical instruction was from his parents, on the church organ playing only sacred music. He studied music theory at the Florence district school. As a teenager, he defied his parents and played cornet in a local brass band where he also began his composing activities. Later, Handy acquired a trumpet from a traveling circus performer. At age 18 he left home and in a short time he learned to play it so well that he joined a traveling Minstrel troupe. On the failure of that group, he became a teacher at Alabama and Mechanical College and later worked in a foundry where he organized and directed a brass band.¹

Though some may question his title of "Father of the Blues," there is little doubt that he popularized the blues and made them mainstream music through his compilations and arrangements of traditional blues-like music which undoubtedly w. C. Handy Houseinspired him .Regardless of exactly who may be considered the true father of the style, his blues masterpieces and other blues works made them available throughout the world and as Sigmund Spaeth, music researcher and author, said, "his assumption of paternalism may well be excused."² His musical career like most musicians had its highs and lows and while wandering without a specific direction in his earlier years, he spent a penniless weekend in St. Louis where he heard performances of blues style music. Settling later in Memphis, he wrote the Memphis Blues which along with the Saint Louis Blues, (also written in Memphis after his experiences in St. Louis) that catapulted him into the national popular music scene. His home in Memphis has been preserved as a museum dedicated to his life and music. It is a humble home and we are thankful that Memphis has seen fit to preserve it. For information about the museum, see their web site.

Memphis Blues The Memphis Blues, were published in 1912 but not by Handy (of course he composed them) who would later become his own publisher in partnership with Harry Pace. Handy sold this piece for only $50 but it did give his career the impetus that would make him world famous. Of course this song, and Handy's residence in a humble home on Beale Street in Memphis, has endeared him to Memphis as their resident historic blues composer. This song is one of the earliest blues compositions published. The original music was written by Handy in 1912 and in this 1913 version, Norton added lyrics and the subtitle states, "Founded on W. C. Handy's World Wide "Blue" Note Melody". The song has sometimes been called "Mister Crump" as it is said that the song was written for E. H. Crump, a Memphis politician seeking election. (Crump went on to establish a political dynasty in Memphis that lasted till the 1950's).

In this song, you can hear the "blue note" which makes its self clearly heard in bar four of the chorus (right on cue according to the structure of a classic blues song). For more information about the famous "blue note" see our Blues Page. Click on the cover or here for the Scorch version or here for the midi. You can also read the lyrics added by Norton..

Though the blues did exist in a traditional unpublished form, in many respects, Handy's compositions were the foundation for all written blues. As a pioneer in developing the genre, he has no equal.

Two years following the Memphis Blues, in 1914, Handy published, through his own publishing house, Pace & St. Louis BluesHandy, The Saint Louis Blues, one of the most popular blues songs ever composed . Here we have it in it's original form, as written and first published by Handy and his Pace & Handy music company of Memphis, Tennessee. The melody is one that is instantly recognizable and has been recorded and used in countless movies over the last 85 years. Here is a snip of one of the earliest recordings of Saint Louis Blues. The famed Sophie Tucker was one of the song's first promoters and it became one of the most recorded and arranged compositions in American music.To further demonstrate the song's world-wide attraction, it was once played by the Royal Band of Ethiopia as a battle hymn at the palace of Emperor Haile Selassie.

One interesting thing about this piece is that the chorus to this piece is actually a melody from another Handy blues piece, "The Jogo Blues". (below) How interesting it is that his most famous melody is actually a different one than we believe it to be. Click on the cover image or here to listen and follow the music using the Scorch version, or for the midi here and here to read the lyrics. From you tube this 1914 recording of the St. Louis Blues that is performed by Handy's band, it is well worth a listen.


Those two pieces ( Memphis & St. Louis) at that time were a radical change from the then popular Ragtime style and opened the way for public acceptance of the Negro folk blues, distinct from spirituals and work songs.³

Jogo BluesPublished in 1913, the year before the St Louis Blues, and Handy's first after The Memphis Blues, The Jogo Blues was among the first pieces published by the Memphis based Pace & Handy Music Company.As we mentioned above, the chorus of the Saint Louis Blues was taken from this piece and according to Handy, it originated as a "Come Along" chanted by Elder Lazarus Gardner of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Florence, Alabama as he took up the collection.4 A "come along" is difficult to find defined across the internet and in any of the many books in our library. As best we have been able to determine, it is a hymn or chant that takes place during a collection or to exhort congregants to come forth and confess or profess their faith. In response to an inquiry to Joshua V. Leto, Reference & Circulation Librarian at the Duke Divinity School Library he indicates that the phrase may be a reflection of some Negro Spirituals from the 19th century. One example is from Thomas Wentworth Higginson's  Negro Spiritual, published in the June 1867 edition of the Atlantic Monthly, one of the first serious attempts to catalogue the lyrics of the music of African slaves. The spiritual THE SHIP OF ZION uses the phrase "Come Along, Come along," at the beginning and end of the hymn. Mr. Leto also wrote to us that "The following is an exerpt from the obituary of Jester Hairston 1901-2000: "On 18 January 2000, at the age of ninety-eight, Dr. Hairston quietly passed from this world, most probably welcomed into the next by a chorus of angels singing “Don't be weary, traveler, come home to Jesus,” the lyrics from his arrangement of Don't Be Weary, Traveler."7

The song was originally written under the title of The Memphis Itch and it is said in Handy's Anthology of the Blues that the song has a number of Afro-American code words including the title word Jogo which at the time was a code word for Negro. The last section of the song is from a folk tune, "Lawdy, Lawdy, Lord, I'll see you when yo troubles all 'll be like mine."5 To view the score and listen to the music using the Scorch plug-in, click on the cover image at left. For the midi, click here. There are no lyrics for this piece.

In 1915, Pace & Handy published another piece with some unique origins, the Joe Turner Blues. Though the musical origins were still strong traditional blues, the idea for the music and lyrics came from Joe Turner (or Turney) who was the brother of Peter Turney, (1827 – 1903) Governor of Tennessee from 1893 to 1897. It was Joe's task to move convicts from Memphis to the State Penitentiary in Nashville. Joe was not popular with the African Americans for obvious reasons and the music and Lyrics lament his arrival. Over the years the song was often incorrectly attributed to have been inspired by the blues singer Big Joe Turner. Though Big Joe did eventually record the song in 1941, he was only five when the piece was published. To view the score and hear the music, click on the sheet music cover image, for the midi version click here. For the full lyrics, click here.

In 1918, the Pace & Handy company moved from Memphis to New York where it became a major force in bringing the music of black songwriters to the public.6 Besides publishing Handy's works, they published many other great songs penned by African Americans including, A Good Man is Hard to Find popularized by Sophie Tucker. In 1920 Pace & Handy dissolved their company and Pace went on to found Black Swan records while Handy formed a family publishing company, Handy Brothers, Inc.

In 1916, Handy penned a non-blues titled work, The Ole Miss Rag, which of course has endeared him to all the Ole Miss University alums and students. His initial avoidance of the Ragtime style in preference for his blues, did not mean that Handy completely avoided that style and other popular styles.This piece was played and recorded on a piano roll (QRS Q-203) by none other than the great ragtime composer and pianist, Scott Joplin. You can see the You Tube presentation of Joplin's performance in the below video.

Though today, those of us who live near "Ole Miss" think of this piece as one dedicated to the University in Oxford, Mississippi, the drawing of a train seems to belie that belief. In 2014 a researcher, Dr. Albert Earl Elmore, a noted scholar who holds degrees from Milsaps College and Ole Miss Law School with a Ph.D. in English Literature from Vanderbilt researched the song over several years and offered a different view. He said "On the cover of the sheet music issued by the Handy Music Company appeared a drawing of a train. Underneath that train, appeared the words, “The Fastest thing out of Memphis.” There can be no doubt that Handy was referring to Ole Miss as the name of the train. He made this even clearer two years later when he re-issued the same tune under another title, “The Ole Miss Blues.” This time he had another musician collaborate to add words: J. Russell Robinson."10 Regardless of the origin of this work, it is a very good Rag.


In 1917, Pace & Handy published The Hooking Cow Blues, a unique and rather strange song that was not a complete Handy composition but one with original words and music by Douglas Williams with "Jazz and Blues" by W. C. Handy. The setting and cover are so uncharacteristic of Handy that one can only wonder at first what prompted him to be involved. During this period there were a number of western/cowboy themed songs that were popular and initially we could only speculate that Handy simply was capitalizing on a passing fad in popular music.The song is much more in style with the mainstream popular music of the times rather than Handy's Blues.

However, in reading his autobiography, we find a very interesting aspect of his musical mind as it specifically relates to this piece. Handy wrote: "When I was no more than ten, I could catalog almost every 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. One whistle, I remember, sounded like a combination of do and sol in the musical scale. Another seemed to combine do and mi. By the same means I could tell what the birds in the orchards and woodlands were singing. 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."11

As such, to us it is more a curiosity related to Handy than an exemplar of his main stream works. Click on the cover image to view the score and listen to the music, click here for the midi and here for the lyrics. To learn a little more about cowboy songs For our article about "Cowboys & Indians" see our April 200 article

In 1917, Handy published another Memphis themed work that became a favorite and was also recorded by many of the musical luminaries of the day, The Beale Street Blues. Of course, Handy lived on Beale Street and Beale was the center of the Blues world during those years. Though for many years, in the mid 20th century Beale Street fell into disuse and decay, the city of Memphis revitalized the area and today, Beale trumpets on it's web site that Beale is "America's Most Iconic Street," according to a USA Today National Poll and that it is "Tennessee's Top Tourism Attraction" and " The Official Home of the Blues." Many of the original buildings still exist and even one store from the Handy period is still in business and a tourist attraction in and of itself.

"Beale Street (the place) was created in 1841 by entrepreneur and developer Robertson Topp (1807–1876), who named it for a forgotten military hero.The original name was Beale Avenue. Its western end primarily housed shops of trade merchants, who traded goods with ships along the Mississippi River, while the eastern part developed as an affluent suburb. In the 1860s, many black traveling musicians began performing on Beale. The first of these to call Beale Street home were the Young Men's Brass Band, who were formed by Sam Thomas in 1867. In the early 1900s, Beale Street was filled with many clubs, restaurants and shops, many of them owned by African-Americans. In 1889, NAACP co-founder Ida B. Wells was a co-owner and editor of an anti-segregationist paper called Free Speech based on Beale. Beale Street Baptist Church, Tennessee's oldest surviving African American Church edifice built in 1864, was also important in the early civil rights movement in Memphis. Handy wrote the Beale Street Blues in 1916 which influenced the change of the street's name from Beale Avenue to Beale Street. From the 1920s to the 1940s, Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, Albert King, Memphis Minnie, B. B. King, Rufus Thomas, Rosco Gordon and other blues and jazz legends played on Beale Street and helped develop the style known as Memphis Blues. As a young man, B. B. King was billed as "the Beale Street Blues Boy." One of Handy's proteges on Beale Street was the young Walter Furry Lewis, who later became a well known blues musician. In his later years Lewis lived near Fourth and Beale, and in 1969 was recorded there in his apartment by Memphis music producer Terry Manning."8

As for the song, click on the sheet music cover for to view the score and listen to the music using the Scorch plug-in, click here for the midi version and here for the lyrics.

The above photo is of Beale Street, ca 1900, to the left is Beale street as restored today.





In 1919 Pace & Handy published The Yellow Dog Blues, a somewhat fusion-like piece that was clearly blues but carries a ragtime influence as well as that of a strophic popular song. The song somewhat languished for some nine years with little notice till a number of major celebrities began recording and performing it in the late 1920's. Among those were Duke Ellington on Brunswick Records, Ted Lewis and Bessie Smithon Columbia. Handy also recorded the work on Lyratone.

Interestingly, in 1914, this song was first published by Handy as The Yellow Dog Rag as an identical musical score but with a much more colorful cover. During those ensuing years, the rag version enjoyed a fair following. What prompted Handy to reissue it as a blues song is unclear but is likely because of the great success he was having with the blues and the passing of the Ragtime song's popularity. To see the Blues score and listen to the music in the Scorch format, click on the cover image, to hear the midi, click here and for the lyrics, here.

In 1921, Handy Bro's. Music published Aunt Hagar's Children Blues, based on another Handy work simply titled Aunt Hagar's Children. The first page of the music states, "Adaptation from W. C. Handy's Selection "Aunt Hagar's Children.". That original seems to have become rather rare and though I have not been able to find a copy, in his anthology, the notes state "In the Biblical title of these blues, Handy is (again) announcing his race to his race. The opening strain is his translation into notes and bars of the half sung, half spoken ejaculation of a woman he passed years ago as the wind whistled through the newly washed britches she was hanging up: 'Your clos'es look lonesome hangin' on th' line--'. The whole was conceived and written by Handy on his knee, in exactly it's present arrangement in Brownlee's Barber Shop, Chicago, and tried out successfully that night by Tate's Orchestra in the Vendome Theater."9 Our best effort in finding the original is to present this adaptation, Aunt Hagar's Children Blues.

Handy wrote this piece during a trip to Chicago and in his autobiography, he explains the title; "This one went back to my Childhood for it's title. My mother had always told me that because of the Bible story of Abraham, Sarah and Sarah's handmaiden Hagar, Negroes often spoke of themselves as "Hagar's Children. With this in mind, I christened my new composition, Aunt Hagar's Children."12

A single stanza and chorus tell the tale of Handy's Aunt Hagar's disruption of the Deacon Splivin's exhortations to his congregation that no jazz, ragtime singing or "winging" should take place. Aunt Hagar proceeds to tell everyone that her boys are home and can play the latest music and they go on to play music that is described as "if the devil brought it, the good Lord sent it down." The piece ends with a "patter" a semi sung, spoken speech that is matched with the notes in the music. This style emerged in the 1920's and continued for at least two decades in American song.. For the score and music using the scorch plug-in, click on the cover image. For the midi version, click here and for the lyrics, here.

Finally, we present to you our last example of Handy's compositions with the 1921 Aunt Hagar's Blues which on the first page of the score states "Adaptation from W. C. Handy's Original Selection Aunt Hagar's Children." This work is nearly a rewrite of the original from which it is adapted and in fact, the lyrics begin almost exactly the same as in the "Children" version above but then depart from the original after the first page. Handy states in his autobiography that when he published this work, he had been unsuccessful in trying to convince the most prominent recording companies to record the work but while they refused, over time, a number of smaller labels were successful with "waxing it." That prior success lead to major labels finally recording the work The song was recorded over the years by many major performers including, King Oliver, Handy's own Orchestra, Ted Lewis, Paul Whiteman with Jack Teagarden, Eddie Condon, and Bob Chester. The song was heard sung by Nat King Cole as Handy in the 1958 biographical film St. Louis Blues.

As with all the music this month, click on the cover image to view the score and follow the music using the Scorch plug-in, click here for the midi and her for the lyrics.

In his later years Handy continued to compose and was a promoter of black composers and performers. In 1943, an accident left him blind but he never stopped his musical work. He also authored his autobiography and at least two other books; Negro Authors and Composers of the United States in 1935 and Unsung Americans Sung in 1944. Handy died in New York City in 1958. In 1960 the United States issued a postage stamp in his honor.

Richard A. Reublin, April, 2016

This article published April, 2016 and is Copyright © 2016 by Richard A. Reublin and The Parlor Songs Academy. Text, images or music may not be reproduced in part or in total without express written permission of the author or a Director of the corporation. Though the songs published on this site are often in the Public Domain, MIDI renditions are protected by copyright as recorded performances.
1. Spaeth, A History of Popular Music in America, Random House, 1948, p. 392
2. Ibid, p393
3. Southern, Eileen, The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, Vol. 2, Macmillan Press, Ltd., 1986, p. 318
4. Spaeth, p. 392
5. William Christopher Handy, Abbe Niles, Elliott S. Hurwitt, Miguel Covarrubias, W. C. Handy's Blues, An Anthology
, Dover Publications, 1926, p. 267
6. Ibid, p. 319
7. From an e-mail, 3-22-16 from
Joshua V. Leto, Reference & Circulation Librarian,Duke Divinity School Library, to R. Reublin@parlorsongs.ac
8. Wikipedia, "Beale Street," used per the fair use license at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/
9. William Christopher Handy, Abbe Niles, Elliott S. Hurwitt, Miguel Covarrubias, W. C. Handy's Blues: An Anthology : Complete Words and Music, Simon & Schuster, 1926.
10. Elmore, Albert Earl, Phd., as posted on hottoddy.com, Oct, 2014

11. By William Christopher Handy, Arna Wendell Bontemps, Father of the Blues: An Autobiography, Macmillan, 194, p. 14
12. Ibid, p. 149

Parlor Songs is an educational website about American popular music and the history of the genre

If you would like to submit an article about America's music for publish on the website, contact the email on the main page. I also welcome suggestions for subjects for future articles.

All articles are written by the previous owners, unless otherwise stated.

© 1997-2024 by Parlor Songs (former owners Richard A. Reublin or Richard G. Beil). Before using any of these images, text or performances (MIDI or other recordings), please read our usage policy for standard permissions and those requiring special attention. Thanks.

I respect your privacy and do not collect or divulge personal information.

Return to Top of Page