A “Mississippi to Alabama” historical marker from the Mississippi Blues Trail — just one of only 14 outside the state of Mississippi — has been placed in Florence at the birthplace of W.C. Handy, widely regarded as the “Father of the Blues.”
The marker, unveiled in late May at 620 W. College Street in Florence, joins blues trail markers in Tutwiler, Clarksdale and Cleveland, Mississippi, where Handy made key discoveries about the blues in the early 20th century. The Florence marker, the 186th on the Mississippi Blues Trail, also honors local natives Sam Phillips and Frank-O Johnson. A “Mississippi to Alabama” marker was dedicated to the Muscle Shoals studio legacy in 2010 at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in Tuscumbia.
“We are very excited to be able to honor W.C. Handy and his connection to both Mississippi and Alabama, ” says Malcolm White, director of Visit Mississippi. “The markers tell of musical legends, their influences, and the history of an area that gave birth to the blues. The Mississippi Blues Trail is one of the best ways to experience the richness of this region, and we are so pleased to celebrate Handy in his hometown of Florence.”
Handy was born Nov. 16, 1873, in a log cabin at 620 W. College Street, which now houses the expanded W.C. Handy Home, Museum and Library. In his autobiography Handy wrote that music he heard as a child in Florence “generated the motif for my blues.” Handy listened to spirituals, hymns, the work songs of a field hand and the fiddle tunes of Jim Turner, and it was in Florence that he received the musical training in school and church that prepared him for his career as a bandleader, composer and publisher.
Handy also credited songs he heard in Bessemer and Muscle Shoals, and in Evansville, Indiana; Henderson, Kentucky; St. Louis, Missouri; and Memphis, Tennessee; as well as the Mississippi Delta, contributing to his repertoire of blues adaptations and compositions. His “Memphis Blues” (1912) was among the first blues songs ever published, while his most famous song, “St. Louis Blues, ” ranks as one of the most-recorded songs of any genre.
Handy died in New York City on March 28, 1958, less than two weeks before the premiere of the Hollywood film based on his life, “St. Louis Blues, ” starring Nat King Cole.
Text by Dave Helms