W. C. Handy -- His Kentucky Ties

By Joyce Trammel

There are people like Abraham Lincoln, there are books like "Gone With The Wind" and then there are songs like "Saint Louis Blues" that come along once in a lifetime -- or perhaps ten lifetimes.

"Saint Louis Blues" was written by W. C. Handy, a black composer who, with that song, reached both the black and white worlds of his day. He planted a seed of "the blues" that would grow into what it is today.

St. Louis, Mo. would like to claim him, but we Kentuckians can boast that ten years of William Christopher Handy's remarkable life belong to us.

According to an article by Joe Creason in the November 15, 1953 issue of The Courier-Journal, Handy came to Henderson, Ky. in 1893. Creason recounts how Handy got to Kentucky:

"Born in Alabama, the son of a Methodist preacher, Handy was supposed to forget all about a musical career and go into church work, too. The plan was that he'd study theology at Wilberforce College in Ohio."

In fact, Handy needed to earn a little money to help him attend Wilberforce. To that end, he recruited a singing quartet and set sail for Chicago, where the World Exposition was planned for 1893.

A financial depression that year caused the fair to be cancelled, leaving the four singers in Chicago with little money. The group disbanded and started working their separate ways back toward Alabama.

Handy, then nineteen, found himself in St. Louis, and completely out of money. After a few days, he boarded a freight train as a "nonpaying" passenger and wound up in Evansville, Ind., just across the Ohio river from Henderson. It was those few days in St. Louis that inspired him years later to write his signature song.

A short time after arriving in Evansville, Handy got a job with Cy Taylor, a barber-musician in Henderson. Taylor needed a trumpet player to round out his band for a job at a big barbecue in the nearby town of Corydon, Ky.

Handy liked the Kentucky side of the river and stayed on there. He organized his own band and began playing for dances all over that part of the country.

Henderson was a music center at the time, famous for its German singing society, which held concerts at the Liederkranz Hall. Handy was so impressed by the society's leader, Professor Bach, that he took a job as janitor at the hall just to be near the singers and to study the technique of the professor. The time he spent there constituted a "post-graduate" course of sorts in music.

In 1898 Handy met and married a local woman, Elizabeth Price. They remained in Henderson until 1903, when they moved to Mississippi. Meanwhile, Handy earned his living traveling with minstrel shows, which were popular at the turn of the century.

Things began to happen for him around 1905, when he wrote a song for a political campaign in Memphis. The tune later became his first published song, "The Memphis Blues."

Some years later, in 1914, Handy wrote "The Saint Louis Blues," which became a big hit. With the profits from that one song, Handy opened a music publishing house in Memphis. The business moved to New York in 1918, where Handy and his younger brother Charles became the first blacks to open a music publishing house in Tin Pan Alley.

Henderson native and entertainer George W. Cooper, who was the vaudeville partner of dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, plugged Handy's songs in the New York music market.

Though the few days Handy spent in St. Louis were the spark for his most famous tune, Kentucky gave him ten years to put his musical foundation together. More importantly, it gave him a Kentucky wife. Those ten years earned for him a "W. C. Handy Day" in 1953 when Henderson, Ky. honored the man who Creason called "The Pappy of the Blues."