William Christopher Handy, also known as W.C. Handy and the “Father of the Blues,” was one of the most influential songwriters in the United States. Though he did not create the Blues genre, he transformed the genre from its origins in Delta Blues by using elements of folk music in his compositions.
He bought his first guitar from the window of a local shop without his parents’ permission. His father believed that musical instruments were tools of the devil. He was ordered by his parents to return the guitar.
Secretly, he joined a local band as a teenager playing the coronet. Handy went on to organize the Lauretta Quartet and they traveled to the 1892 Chicago World’s Fair, only to find out that it had been postponed until the next year. Handy later joined a successful band that played throughout neighboring cities near Henderson, Kentucky. There, his luck changed for the better.
In 1886, while performing at a barbecue in Henderson, Handy met his future wife, Elizabeth Price. The two married on July 19th, 1886 in the Kentucky moonlight. After spending a decade in Henderson, Handy’s dedication to his music propelled his career.
Handy toured the southwest with a group called “Mahara’s Minstrels.” He became a teacher at the Agricultural and Mechanical College in Alabama. Later, he directed an African American band called the Knights of Pythias in Mississippi. Handy published his most famous composition, “St. Louis Blues,” at the age of 40. He went on to open his own publishing business, compiling many more blues tunes and authoring a few books, including his biography, “Father of the Blues.”
W.C. Handy had found his true calling and passion in Henderson, Kentucky. In an interview with Joe Creason of The Courier-Journal, he said, “I didn’t write any songs in Henderson, but it was there I realized that experiences I had had, things I had seen and heard could be set down in a kind of music characteristic of my race. There I learned to appreciate the music of my people…then the blues were born, because from that day on, I started thinking about putting my own experience down in that particular kind of music.”
Handy returned to Henderson in 1953 to perform at a series of fundraisers being held in his honor. During this time, Handy passed a prized possession, his trumpet, to a young trumpet player in the Barret High School band. The trumpet was passed down through two Henderson families before it was given to the Henderson County Historical and Genealogical Society. Handy’s trumpet can still be seen on display at the Henderson Community Room at 101 N. Water St.
Each year, The W.C. Handy Blues and Barbecue Festival celebrates Handy and his legacy. Drawing over 40,000 people every year, the four-night festival is one of the largest free music festivals in the nation. Attendees can enjoy a variety of blues styles, including gritty delta blues, smooth soul, big horn bands, and zydeco music over the span of the four-day festival. The week is filled with other celebratory events, like the William Branaman Street Strut People’s Parade, Handy Blues Art Exhibit, W.C. Handy Tennis Tournament, and festive lunch breaks and happy hours featuring local musicians. Of course, this year’s festival has been postponed for next summer, when travel and large events are safer. It’s never too early to start making plans and booking your trip to Henderson, Kentucky!