On Sep. 28, 1912 WC Handy (1873-1958), the “Father of the Blues,” changed the course of American popular music when he published “The Memphis Blues.” The celebrated composer, arranger, musician, and publisher, brought the African-American folk tradition of the blues into mainstream music.
Born William Christopher Handy in Alabama in 1873, the talented cornet player attended Teachers Agricultural and Mechanical College in Huntsville where he taught music and lead the band. After a brief period of teaching, Handy travelled the Mississippi Delta, collecting and transcribing blues songs from the region, according to americaslibrary.gov.
Eventually settling in Memphis, TN, Handy also gained notoriety as a composer who was hired to write a campaign song for mayoral candidate E.H. Crump. Originally titled “Mister Crump,” the song was mutually beneficial in helping to get Crump elected mayor and brought wider exposure Handy as a musician and composer.
Library of Congress American Memory mentions that on Saturday, Sep. 28, 1912, Handy's "Mister Crump," retitled "Memphis Blues," went on sale at Bry's Department Store in Memphis. Even though the first 1,000 copies of the sheet music sold out in three days, Handy was misled, and thinking that the song was not successful, he sold his rights to the publisher for only fifty dollars.
Although Handy didn’t profit directly from “Memphis Blues,” the talented composer went on produce a series of blues hits, including "St. Louis Blues" in 1914, "Beale St. Blues" in 1916, and a host of other popular blues pieces.
In discussing African American music, this author notes some of the distinctive features of the blues, one of the most celebrated musical genres in the world:
Famed poet James Weldon Johnson described this authentic African American musical form in this manner: ‘It is from the blues that all that may be called American music derives it most distinctive characteristics.’ Willie Dixon, ‘Poet Laureate of the Blues,’ goes on to speak of the seminal qualities of this distinctively American musical genre: ‘Blues is the roots, everything else is the fruits.’
Blues influences can be detected in jazz, rhythm and blues, for sure, rock, pop, soul, and even classical music. On Sep. 28, 101 years after the publication of “Memphis Blues,” WC Handy’s influence as “The Father of the Blues” is recognized and celebrated world-wide.
Take a look at a slide show of photos from the life of WC Handy, and give a listen to a rare performance of “Memphis Blues” by the composer himself, WC Handy, who provides musical notations.
Check out a related article written in celebration of African American Music Month: