“Bite-Size Bits of Local, National, and Global History”
“Bite-Size Bits of Local, National, and Global History”
Florence in Lauderdale County, Alabama — The American South (East South Central)

W. C. Handy Birthplace

W. C. Handy Birthplace Marker (side 1) image. Click for full size.
Photographed By Sandra Hughes, November 5, 2015
1. W. C. Handy Birthplace Marker (side 1)
Inscription.  (side 1)
William Christopher Handy, widely honored as the “Father of the Blues,” was born in this house on November 16, 1873. In his autobiography, Handy traced the key events in his discovery of the blues back to his time in the Mississippi Delta, beginning in 1903. He also wrote that the music he had heard as a child in Florence “generated the motif for my blues.” Here he also received the musical training in school and church that prepared him for his illustrious career.

(side 2)
W. C. Handy started on his path to worldwide fame in the blues here in Florence, where he heard songs and field hollers and learned hymns and spirituals while servings as the organist at his father’s A.M.E. church. His schoolmaster, Young A. Wallace, also taught him hymns and classical music. His father and Wallace opposed Handy’s desire to pursue a career in music, however, and Handy wrote that when he brought a guitar home, his father, Charles Handy, called it “ one of the devil’s playthings.” But he continued to be inspired by the secular music of fiddle players Jim Turner and Uncle
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Whit walker and by the songs of laborers he heard in Florence, Muscle Shoals and Bessemer. Even the sounds of birds, frogs and farm animals were music to his ears. As he began to play cornet and travel, he assimilated more music in St. Louis; Evansville, Indiana; and Henderson, Kentucky; and on tour with Mahara’s Minstrels, that he would later use in his blues compositions and adaptations.

Handy, who had been playing marches, waltzes, rag, classic and popular music, moved to Clarksdale, Mississippi to lead a band in 1903. In the nearby town of Cleveland, he was stunned when a crowd showered Prince McCoy’s ragged local trio with coins for playing music he described as “long associated with cane rows and levee camps.” A guitarist at a train station in Tutwiler playing what he called “the mood for what we now call blues. My own fondness for this sort of thing began in Florence…. In the Delta, however, I suddenly saw the songs with the eye of a budding composer.”

In 1905 Handy moved to Memphis where he and a partner, Harry Pace, founded the first successful black-owned music publishing company. The Pace & Handy firm relocated to New York in 1918 and was reorganized as Handy Brothers Music Company in 1921. Handy’s “Memphis Blues” was among the first blues ever published, in 1912, and his famous “St. Louis Blues” ranks
W. C. Handy Birthplace Marker (side 2) image. Click for full size.
Photographed By Sandra Hughes, November 5, 2015
2. W. C. Handy Birthplace Marker (side 2)
as one of the most-recorded songs of all time. Handy became the public voice of the blues, often quoted in the press and saluted far and wide for his achievements. He also arranged and published many spirituals. His death in New York on March 28, 1958, came less than two weeks before the premiere of the Hollywood film based on his life, St. Louis Blues, starring Nat King Cole. At Handy’s instructions, all of his possessions were put into a boxcar and sent by rail to Florence. The W.C. Handy Music Festival was founded here with the help of Sheffield jazz musicians Willie Ruff in 1982.

Other Florence natives who have contributed to the recording, producing or songwriting of Mississippi blues and rhythm & blues include Sam Phillips (1923-2003), founder of Sun Records in Memphis, and Frank “Frank-O” Johnson (born in 1950), Phillips recorded B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Elvis Presley and many other Mississippi-born blues and rock’n’roll artist at his studio in the 1950s. Johnson worked as a songwriter for Malaco Records in Jackson, Mississippi, and recorded for the Jackson-based Traction and Ace labels before launching his own Phat Sound label and creating a syndicated radio show. Tommy Couch, a co-founder of Malaco, was born in Tuscumbia in 1942.
Erected 2015 by Mississippi Blues Commission. (Marker Number
W. C. Handy Birthplace Marker image. Click for full size.
Photographed By Sandra Hughes, November 5, 2015
3. W. C. Handy Birthplace Marker
Topics and series. This historical marker is listed in these topic lists: African AmericansArts, Letters, MusicEntertainment. In addition, it is included in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, and the Mississippi Blues Trail series lists. A significant historical date for this entry is November 16, 1873.
Location. 34° 47.729′ N, 87° 41.087′ W. Marker is in Florence, Alabama, in Lauderdale County. Marker is at the intersection of West College Street and South Marengo Street, on the right when traveling west on West College Street. Touch for map. Marker is at or near this postal address: 620 W College St, Florence AL 35630, United States of America. Touch for directions.
Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within walking distance of this marker. William Christopher Handy (within shouting distance of this marker); Burrell Normal School (about 600 feet away, measured in a direct line); Saint Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church (about 700 feet away); Locust Street Historic District (approx. 0.3 miles away); Birthplace of W.C. Handy (approx. 0.4 miles away); The Greater Mount Moriah Primitive Baptist Church (approx. half a mile away); Dred Scott (approx. half a mile away); Karsner-Kennedy House (approx. half a mile away). Touch for a list and map of all markers in Florence.
Also see . . .
1. W. C. Handy Birthplace, Museum & Library. (Submitted on November 6, 2015.)
2. The Mississippi Blues Trail
W. C. Handy image. Click for full size.
Photographed By Sandra Hughes, November 5, 2015
4. W. C. Handy
Handy, circa 1892; he played in brass bands during this period of his life. Handy was a renowned cornetist who once led dance bands and concert orchestras but he enjoyed his greatest success as a composer and publisher. This trumpet once belong to Handy.
. (Submitted on November 6, 2015.)
W. C. Handy image. Click for full size.
Photographed By Sandra Hughes, November 5, 2015
5. W. C. Handy
Handy taught music at Alabama A&M, then known as State Agricultural & Mechanical College for Negros, from 1900 to 1902. The U.S. Postal service issued a W.C. Handy commemorative stamp in 1969. Handy holds a book of piano arrangements of his blues classics published by his company in 1956. Frank-O Johnson’s first album, released by Traction Records in 1987. Sam Phillips (right) with Rufus Thomas, one of the many blues and R&B artists who recorded for Phillips' Sun label. Thomas was a native of Cayce, Mississippi. W.C. Handy’s reminiscences are based on his autobiography, Father of the Blues, published in 1941 and on an earlier manuscript of the book originally titled Fight It Out.
Records image. Click for full size.
Photographed By Sandra Hughes, September 27, 2008
6. Records
The Memphis Blues, The Saint Louis Blues and Joe Turner Blues.
W. C. Handy & Nat King Cole image. Click for full size.
Photographed By Sandra Hughes, September 27, 2008
7. W. C. Handy & Nat King Cole
W. C. Handy Horn image. Click for full size.
Photographed By Sandra Hughes, September 27, 2008
8. W. C. Handy Horn
St Louis Blues, Beale Street Blues and a photo of W.C. Handy.
W. C. Handy in 1941 image. Click for full size.
Photographed By Carl Van Vechten, July 17, 1941
9. W. C. Handy in 1941
This photograph is from the Carl Van Vechen Photographs at the U.S. Library of Congress.
Credits. This page was last revised on August 28, 2020. It was originally submitted on November 5, 2015, by Sandra Hughes Tidwell of Killen, Alabama, USA. This page has been viewed 677 times since then and 24 times this year. It was the Marker of the Week November 18, 2018. Photos:   1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. submitted on November 5, 2015, by Sandra Hughes Tidwell of Killen, Alabama, USA.   9. submitted on November 17, 2018, by J. J. Prats of Powell, Ohio. • Bernard Fisher was the editor who published this page.

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Jun. 3, 2023