W.C. Handy Birthplace, Museum and Library

W.C. Handy Birthplace, Museum and Library

620 West College Street, Florence

W.C. Handy, the world-renowned "Father of the Blues," was born in Florence in 1873 in a log cabin his grandfather had built by hand. A historic marker commemorates the home’s original site at the corner of Cherokee Street and Beale Street. The two-room house was relocated to 620 West College Street in 1968. The home and museum display a large collection of Handy’s personal papers, memorabilia, photographs and artifacts including handwritten sheets of music for many of his famous tunes.

Handy developed a passion for music at a very young age, but his devout Methodist family did not approve. His father and grandfather, both preachers, believed that secular music was wicked, and forced Handy to trade his first instrument, a guitar, for a dictionary. After watching another musician play the cornet, Handy saved $1.75 to buy his own, which he wrapped up and hid in the woods behind his family’s home.

Handy’s musical career began in 1896, when he left the Shoals to accept a cornet position with the Chicago-based ensemble Mahara’s Minstrels. Four years later, he returned to Alabama and became bandmaster at the Agricultural and Mechanical College for Negroes. In 1903, Handy left his home state once again and moved to Clarksdale, Mississippi. There, he served as director of the Knights of Pythias band until 1909, when he relocated to Memphis and began performing on Beale Street.

While in Memphis, Handy composed a theme song for the mayoral campaign of Edward Hull Crump. After the election, Handy altered the lyrics and changed the name of the song from “Mr. Crump” to “Memphis Blues.” Several years later, Handy moved to St. Louis and immortalized that city in song, as well, combining African rhythms with European musical styles and techniques to create “St. Louis Blues.” By 1930, it had become the most recorded song in popular music.

Today, Handy is regarded as the “Father of the Blues” and one of the most influential songwriters in American music history. His contributions to music are commemorated annually in his hometown of Florence during the W.C. Handy Music Festival.