One-Hour Special on the Father of the Blues

William Christopher (better known as WC) Handy didn’t invent the blues -- but he heard them in a deep and understanding way. He figured out how they worked. He wrote them down, arranged them, and did the business of bringing them to the world.

Handy’s classic “St. Louis Blues” is one of the most recorded songs ever. But even though Handy’s blues were phenomenally popular, he also strove to secure respect for himself and for other African-American composers. He was one of the first black composers to hold onto the rights to his music, and he published his own and other black composers’ work.

In this hour-long radio special, host Dr. Ysaye Maria Barnwell (of Sweet Honey in the Rock) celebrates the life and legacy of WC Handy the musician, the composer, the arranger, the publisher and the pioneer.

Audio - Hear the show online

Download the program script, or a list of musical sources used in the program

(Postcard designed by Harry Bolick)

Related Music

Music - Memphis City Blues Music - St. Louis Blues Music - Yellow Dog Blues Music - St. Louis Blues (montage)

Our Host

Since 1979, Dr. Ysaye Maria Barnwell has performed with the internationally-acclaimed a cappella quintet, Sweet Honey in the Rock. She has appeared on more than twenty-five recordings with Sweet Honey and various artists. Dr. Barnwell has worked as a commissioned composer on projects for clients including Sesame Street, Dance Alloy of Pittsburgh, the Women’s Philharmonic of San Francisco, the Plymouth Music Series, and numerous choirs. For more than twenty years she has conducted THE WORKSHOP: Building a Vocal Community--Singing in the African-American Tradition throughout the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and Australia. Her acting credits include voice-overs, documentary narration, and appearances in television and film.  Dr. Barnwell lives in Washington D.C.


WC Handy's Blues was produced by Artemis Media Project with Murray Street Productions. Executive Producers Kathie Farnell and Steve Rathe. Our host is Dr. Ysaye Maria Barnwell.

Post production mix by Simon Rentner. Our production team includes Matthew D. Payne, Matthew Long Middleton, Bryan Trenis, Dale Short and Jacquie Gales Webb. Webmaster Andrew Rosenblum.

This project is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts, which believes that a great nation deserves great art, and by grants from the Alabama State Council on the Arts and the Alabama Bureau of Tourism and Travel.
Special thanks to George Avakian for the use of his 1956 WC Handy interview, Huntsville City Schools, Keith Ward, the Handy Family and the Handy Brothers Music Company for allowing us to visit and photograph their offices (photographs were taken by Chris Roose). Find out more about WC Handy's Music at

Additional support came from Rounder Records and the WC Handy Festival, Florence Alabama.

From Our Studios -- Interviews
(note: the interviews are in unedited form, so may contain some pauses and background noise elements).

Dr. Richard Raichelson, Memphis-based historian, is the author of numerous publications on the history and music of Memphis including “Beale Street Talks: A Walking Tour down the Home of the Blues”.


Hear the Interview
| Or click here to read a transcript.

Dr. Elliott Hurwitt
, a music historian based in New York City, is the author of numerous publications relating to the music of WC Handy and also serves frequently as a media consultant. Author of “Abbe Niles among the Jazz Critics," paper presented to Greater New York Chapter, American Musicological Society, 2001.

Hear the Interview


George Avakian is a producer whose long and distinguished career includes recording Louis Armstrong and playing WC Handy’s compositions in 1954. In 2000, he received the Down Beat Life Achievement Award. Author of "Bix Beiderbecke," an article in The Art of Jazz (New York: Crown Press, 1960). By the way, that's George in the photograph above, with W.C. Handy and Louis Armstrong.

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| Click here to read the interview.

Dan Morgenstern, Director of the Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University, is a historian, editor, and author of Living with Jazz.

Click here to read the interview.

Dr. Carlos Handy, WC Handy’s grandson, is Department Chair and Professor of Physics at Texas Southern University.


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| Click here to read the interview.

Edwina Handy DeCosta, WC Handy’s great-granddaughter, is the vice-president of Handy Brothers Music Company in New York.

Minnie Handy Hanson (pictured with son Doal E. Hanson), WC Handy’s granddaughter, is the president of Handy Brothers Music Company in New York.

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| Click here to read the interview with DeCosta and Hanson

More pictures of the Handy Brothers Music Company offices.

Dr. David Musselman, a music historian based in Florence, Alabama, helped found the annual WC Handy Music Festival.

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| Click here to read the interview.

Ellis Marsalis, regarded by many as the premier modern jazz pianist in New Orleans, is director emeritus of the Jazz Studies Program at University of New Orleans. He is active as a performer and recording artist featured on CBS-Sony and his own label, ELM Records.

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John Briggs, a native Alabamian, is vice president of the Membership Group of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).

Hear the Interview | Click here to read the interview.

Dave Gallaher, heritage blues musician, is a member of Microwave Dave and the Nukes (pictured left), has five albums to his credit, and appears at music festivals worldwide.


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| Click here to read the interview.

Richard Johnston, blues guitarist, is known as the Tramp King of Beale Street. He has worked as a street musician since 1997, appears at music festivals around the world, and was the subject of a public television documentary, Hill Country Troubadour.

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| Click here to read the interview.


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