Birthplace and Museum
W.C. Handy: Father of the Blues
By Rochelle Caviness - July 29, 2002
William Christopher Handy is universally acknowledged as the Father of the Blues. Granted, there were many blues composers before him, however Handy was the first person to write down his compositions, most of which were published during his lifetime. When Handy began composing and playing blues music, the blues - as a distinct style of music, was still relatively young. Without exception, everyone acknowledges that Handy, by writing down his compositions, and having them published, helped to introduce the blues styles of music to the world.
Handy was not your run-of-the-mill musician. He was born in Florence, Alabama in 1873. His father was a Methodist preacher, as was his grandfather. If his family had their way, Handy would also have taken to the pulpit. It was not to be. Music was in his blood and no matter what he did - his actions turned to music. Throughout his life Handy was to hold a variety of jobs ranging manual labor to teaching at the Agricultural and Mechanical College in Normal, Alabama. Throughout his life, Handy had 'weak' eyes, and he was to go through several temporary bouts of blindness before going permanently blind sometime around 1943. Handy passed away in 1958 - after becoming a legend in his own lifetime as The Father of the Blues.
You may not be familiar with Handy's name, but you're sure to be familiar with many his works, such as the Saint Louis Blues and Memphis Blues. Handy's vision problems may have slowed him down slightly, but they never stopped him. When he went blind, he adapted to this new challenge by learning braille. He never stopped composing new music or playing the various instruments that he was proficient on. Many of his musical scores where published, during his lifetime, in braille.
When Handy was born, his family lived in a small log cabin that was built by his grandfather. This cabin has been completely restored, and is now open to the public. Attached to this cabin is a small, but growing, museum devoted to Handy and his work. A resource library and garden area are also located at the site of Handy's birthplace.
The displays in the museum are enclosed by glass, and they contain a variety of artifacts ranging from Handy's braille watch to pictures taken of him during his career. If you are blind, an you want to tour the museum, you'll get the most out of the tour if you bring a companion with you who can describe the displays for you as none of the displays have braille descriptions. If you arrive without a sighted companion, I'm sure the staff at the museum would give you a guide tour. In such a case, it would be best to call ahead to inquire if this could be arranged, and what time would be most convenient for them to have you stop by. The staff at the museum also has audio recordings of Handy's music and songs that they can play for you. In addition to the music, the real treat at the museum is the cabin itself. The cabin is not air-conditioned, and if you tour the cabin in the summer you'll get a real sense of how hard, and hot, it would have been to live in the cabin back in the days before refrigerators, air-conditioners, and tap water! The cabin is furnished, and many of the items in the cabin are 'touchable'.
The W.C. Handy birthplace, museum, and library are located at 620 W. College Street, Florence Alabama 35630. The site is opened Tuesdays through Saturday 10:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. and you can contact the museum directly by calling (256) 760-6434.
The city of Florence is proud of its native son, and each year two celebrations are held to honor Handy.
The W.C. Handy Music Festival is a week long celebration of Handy's lifetime of achievement. This year the festival was held July 28 - August 3, 2002. Besides this music extravaganza, each November a birthday party for Handy, complete with cake, is held at the W. C. Handy homeplace.
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- For mor information about W.C. Handy's birthplace, the W.C. Handy Festival and birthday celebration, and the numerous other attractions in the Florence area, call the Florence Tourism Office at 1-888-FLO-TOUR. You can also check out their website, www.flo-tour.org
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