Legacy Saved: Birthplace of the Blues
November 3, 2011
The Setting: Florence, Alabama
The Legacy: The W. C. Handy Home
The Savior: The City of Florence
The old wood plank house was crumbling and forgotten, perched on a small knoll back on the wrong side of the tracks in Florence, Alabama.
It had long needed painting.
Then again, perhaps the house had never been painted.
It was empty.
It was silent.
Its windows were vacant.
The porch was rotting.
Weeds and vines had turned the yard into a garden of bramble bush.
The aging and decrepit old house, the last trace of an earlier time, the unkempt face of a sad song, looked as though it could have well been the home of the blues.
Within the old house was born William Christopher Handy, the son of a minister, a boy who saved those hard-earned coins he earned picking berries, nuts, and making lye soap and bought a guitar in an edge-of-town pawn shop. Why not? He was ten years old and already knew how to read music.
His father believed that all professional musicians were sinners and demanded for his son go back to town and trade his guitar for something useful, perhaps even swap it for a dictionary. William Christopher Handy dutifully ambled back into town and traded his guitar.
He came home with a trumpet.
His father said, “Boy, you are trotting down to hell on a fast horse in a porcupine saddle.”
The trumpet would be his salvation.
From it would come the first and earliest sounds of the blues.
He sat beside an old stained piano in a Beale Street dive in the late hours one night and thought about a woman in tears, a woman abandoned, a woman ready to die. And he sang softly the words he had heard a grief-stricken woman say in the shadows of a world all alone: “I hate to see de evenin’ sun go down, ‘cause my baby, he done left this town.’
Handy had slept on the cobblestone streets of St. Louis and in the horse stall of a racetrack. So often, he didn’t have but a single dime in his pocket with nowhere to go, no reason to go there, nowhere to sleep, and nobody to care if he were even still around the next morning. As he always said, “I understood those folks who hated to see the evenin’ sun go down.”
For Handy, the blues were only a note or two, a tear or two, a broken heart or two away from being born. He took his trumpet and gave the world “The St. Louis Blues.” It was only the beginning. He became an American original, an American legend.
Back home in Florence, his little one-room birthplace had been ignored, ravaged and warped by time and weather. The old cabin was much like a lost note in a jazzman’s trumpet, abandoned and ready to die. In 1954, it had become a victim of urban renewal and tagged to be torn down and hauled away.
Handy was paid $2,999 for his birthplace. He promptly deposited the money and mentioned that he would like for it to be applied to restoring his home if the city ever decided to undertake such a project.
Like the blues, a new idea was being born in Florence. The house was not lost. It was dismantled and stored in the basement of W. C. Handy Elementary School. At last the time came to put it all back together again.
A citywide campaign quickly raised $16,000 – from large donations to the nickels and dimes that poured in from elementary schools. Handy was to have his wish, and the legend of his music – ‘coming,’ he once said, ‘from the man fartherest down’ – would be coming home.
The W. C. Handy home has been carefully restored as a tribute to the man who captured pain and sorrow and blew it sweetly from a silver trumpet as the blues. It has been refurbished with mementos of Handy’s life.
Just a few years before he died, William Christopher Handy dug up an old photograph of his boyhood home, nestled in the trees of Florence, and printed it proudly on the front of 5,000 Christmas cards. He wrote; “I’m sending you the home what I was born in nigh on to six weeks ‘fore Christmas mornin’ where Santa Claus discovered me back ‘round eighteen hundred seventy-three.”
It still stands. It is no longer ignored. W. C. Handy would be proud.