Wednesday, April 14, 2021

William Christopher (W.C.) Handy 'The Father of the Blues' – An Emancipation, Education and Musical Journey, from Anahilt to Alabama

It's a long way from Anahilt in County Down to Alabama, but it can be done – especially if you go via Nashville, Tennessee – where the new National Museum of African American Music opened back at the end of January (website here).

I've posted here before about Presbyterian Rev Joseph Gillespie McKee from Anahilt (1832–1868; see previous post here), and his educational work amongst 'freedmen' slaves in the city of Nashville, the effects of which would cost him his health and eventually his life.

His work was the foundation of what became Fisk University in 1866. Joseph McKee died two years later in 1868. The renowned Fisk Jubilee Singers emerged as a touring acapella ensemble in 1871, through the vision of George Leonard White, ostensibly to raise funds for the University. One of the first Singers was Maggie Wilson, later Porter (1853–1942), who was a former pupil of McKee's (source here). The Fisk Jubilee Singers visited the north of Ireland in 1873, singing to enthralled audiences in Belfast (at the Ulster Hall) and Londonderry (at First Derry Presbyterian Church on the famous city walls).

• The Handy family of northern Alabama
That same year, in rural north Alabama, a boy called William Christopher Handy was born, on 16 November 1873. Blues musicians like Robert Johnson (1911–38) have a high profile still today, but from the previous generation, W. C. Handy is the true 'Father of the Blues'. His grandparents had been slaves, and his father, Charles B Handy, was the minister of a small African Methodist Episcopal church in Guntersville in northern Alabama, on the banks of the Tennessee River, 150 miles south of Nashville. In his 1938 Collection of Negro Spirituals Handy reminisced that the church was 'the first to be built by my grandfather and from whose pulpit my father preached many a sermon'.

From W.C.'s 1941 autobiography it's clear that the area was socially divided, but mostly along class lines, which he labels as 'cultured' (ie well off and educated) and 'uncultured' (ie poor and uneducated) – with white people and black people mixing to some extent within these two categories. Here is Handy's home cabin.

• Guitar, Whistling and Fiddling for Dances
Religiously his family was very conservative. His mother 'admitted a fondness for the guitar, but she could not play it because the church put a taboo on such instruments'. An uncle banned his children even from whistling. Before his maternal grandfather Christopher Brewer 'got religion, he used to play the fiddle for dances'. Knitting needles were used as drumsticks.

• Early Influences and 'The Devil's Playthings'.
A trumpet player called Claude Seals was the first musician that 'fired my imagination' – he had come to town to play with the local Baptist choir. But Handy really wanted a guitar, and saved what little money he could until he could afford to buy one at the local department store. When he presented it at home for the first time, both of his parents were furious – 'my father was outraged. "One of the Devil's playthings!... whatever possessed you to bring a sinful thing like that into our Christian home!" W. C. took it back to the store and exchanged it for a Webster's Dictionary. 

• Professor Young A. Wallace, the first graduate from Fisk University
With discouragement at home, school was to be where Handy's musical training first came. His teacher at Florence District School for Negroes was a local man, Professor Young A. Wallace, or 'Y. A. Wallace'. Wallace had been among the very first class to graduate from Fisk University in Nashville in 1877. 

In The Heritage of Lauderdale County, Alabama Young A. Wallace is mentioned in an article about the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the oldest churches in north west Alabama. The congregation was founded in 1840.

"About the year 1860 one tall man of mixed blood, Robin Lightfoot, a slave-preacher who could read a little together with the following named men: LaFayette Simpson, Sr., Edward Poole, Sr., Charles Grey, Jerry Simpson, John Rapier, Cain Leach, Harvey Weakley, Sr., Anthony Simpson, Charles Handy, Harrison Woods secured a lot which is now intersected by the highway leading to O'Neal Bridge. On this lot was a brick cowhouse which the men converted into a church. Then, with Lightfoot as their leader organized the first known Negro church south of the Mason Dixon line. The slave owners did not interfere with the assembly of slaves in this church nor did they permit patrolers to intimidate them.

During the year 1862, Robin Lightfoot held revival in this church and Y. A. Wallace and his brother Beverly Wallace were mourners (definition here). Y. A. Wallace left Florence with a general in the Union Army which passed through the town. He went seeking an education and after completing his course at Fisk University, returned to Florence and taught school for many years. Mr. Wallace was given credit by William Handy for starting the first chorus in Negro churches in Florence. St. Paul was one of these churches. Lightfoot preached continually to his congregation that freedom would come for the Negro slaves."


Rev Robin Lightfoot, aged 73, was murdered by lynching/hanging by Confederate soldiers in 1862.

Some histories of the area link his murder to the wartime arrest and imprisonment, on 8 August 1862, of Rev William Henry Mitchell, the Monaghan-born and Belfast-educated and Princeton-qualified minister of Florence's First Presbyterian Church from 1851–71, who was also President of Florence Synodical Female College. Mitchell had pro-Confederate sympathies and was often outspoken in the pulpit, even when Union soldiers were present.

W. C. was under Y. A. Wallace's tutelage for 11 years. A search on show that Y. A. was also politically very active in the community, leading the local Republican Party branch on a range of issues.

• "My Introduction to the Rudiments of Music"
Evidently Wallace was a main of personal faith, however Handy wrote that 'Professor Wallace had no interest in the spirituals. Though the famous Fisk Jubilee Singers toured the world in his day and created a lasting esteem for these songs, he made no attempt to instruct us in this remarkable folk music' – he also credits Wallace with being his first great musical mentor – 'my introduction to the rudiments of music was largely gained during the 11 years I spent under this quaint instructor in the Florence District School for Negroes'.

Handy wrote that under Wallace 'we learned to sing in all keys, measures and movements. We learned all the songs in "Gospel Hymns, one to six" [an Ira D Sankey collection]. Each year we bought new instruction books and advanced to a point where we could sing excerpts from the works of Wagner, Bizet, Verdi and other masters – all without instrumental accompaniment'. He goes on to explain in some detail the musical theory and singing skills that Wallace taught him. Yet, Wallace could see no future in music as a career – 'what can music do but bring you to the gutter?'.

Y. A. Wallace died in June 1937. Here is his obituary from The Florence Herald of 25 June 1937:

'What can music do but bring you to the gutter?'. How wrong Wallace was. Not only is W. C. Handy credited with being the 'Father of the Blues', he learned the music business fast; he had sold the rights to his composition The Memphis Blues for just $100 – but he soon set up a publishing company to secure copyrights to all further compositions, including his St Louis Blues



• PS: On my previous post about Joseph McKee, back in 2015, author Andrew Ward was kind enough to place this informative comment – "Thank you for your article on Joseph McKee, who features in the early chapters of my book, Dark Midnight When I Rise: The Story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. He was a truly heroic figure, and though his establishment competed, and, in the end, lost its preeminence to the Fisk enterprise and its sponsor, the American Missionary Association, he was a remarkably tenacious toiler among the Contrabands of Nashville, and deserves a memorial plaque. "Tell me not of Burmah's heathen," he versified to his brother in India, "Far away o'er oceans' foam. / Teach them, teach them who can reach them / We have heathen nearer home."

• A C-SPAN video of Andrew Ward giving a talk on the subject, including Joseph Gillespie McKee, in June 2000 can be viewed here.