Handy was born in Florence, Alabama, in 1873 into a deeply religious family. As a boy, he saved for a guitar that he saw in a store window in town. When he finally bought it and brought it home, his father wouldn’t let it is the house. The instrument played the devil’s music, that was the end of Handy’s guitar.
Handy soon was taking organ lessons and learned to play the cornet. He heard music everywhere: In the “shovel brigade” at the furnace where he worked and in the natural world:
Handy was a deeply religious man, whose influences in his musical style were found in the church music he sang and played as a youth, and in the natural world. He later cited the sounds of nature, such as “whippoorwills, bats and hoot owls and their outlandish noises”, the sounds of Cypress Creek washing on the fringes of the woodland, and “the music of every songbird and all the symphonies of their unpremeditated art” as inspiration.
The blues – or any other form of music, for that matter – is not invented by one individual. The evolving blues genre was a regional music of the south, with roots deep in slavery and working the land. Mississippi Blues Trail tells the story of Handy sitting in a train station in the town of Tutwiler listening to a man playing slide with a knife. Part of the lyric, the site says, was the line “Goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog.” Handy adapted and published the song as “Yellow Dog Blues” and the nickname followed.
The site explains the meaning of the lyric:
The song referred to the crossing of the Southern and Yazoo & Mississippi Valley railroads in Moorhead, forty-two miles to the south; the Y&MV (sometimes called the Yazoo Delta or Y.D.) was nicknamed the “Dog,” or “Yellow Dog.”
Here is a recreation of the moment. It seems that Handy was a catalyst — a man who at one time was deeply in touch with the music and his people and on the other had the intelligence, ability and desire to commercialize the music more broadly. Indeed, a more accurate — and just as complimentary — nickname would have been “Stepfather of the Blues.” Handy died in New York City in 1958.
I couldn’t find any footage of Handy playing. Clearly, the most important songs to listen to are “St. Louis Blues” and “Yellow Dog Blues.” Old versions of both are above and below, respectively. Unfortunately, the version of “Yellow Dog Blues” is instrumental only.