100th Anniversary of the Blues

The Blues began a century ago yesterday, with the release of WC Handy's "Memphis Blues."

wc-handy-memphis-blues

The Blues began a century ago yesterday, with the release of WC Handy’s “Memphis Blues.”

BBC (“WC Handy’s Memphis Blues: The Song of 1912“):

One hundred years ago, in the autumn of 1912, an African-American musician by the name of WC Handy published a song that would take the US by storm – Memphis Blues. It launched the blues as a mass entertainment genre that would transform popular music worldwide.

In 1903 William Christopher Handy was leading a band called the Colored Knights of Pythias based in Clarksdale, in Mississippi’s Delta country, when one day he paid a visit to the little town of Tutwiler.

“A lean loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me… His face had on it the sadness of the ages,” Handy writes in his 1941 autobiography, Father of the Blues.

“As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularised by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars… The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.”

The music was “weird” because it was new.

The blues is not, as some imagine, as old as the hills. According to David Wondrich, author of Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot, it was “a particular creature of the 1890s”.

Handy describes the 12-bar form “with its three-chord basic structure (tonic-subdominant-dominant seventh)” as one widely used “by Negro roustabouts, honky-tonk piano players, wanderers and others of their underprivileged but undaunted clan from Missouri to the Gulf [of Mexico]”.

It had become, he says, “a common medium through which any such individual might express his personal feelings in a sort of a musical soliloquy”.

Handy himself was from a very different world. A skilled, musically-literate, and well-travelled band leader from northern Alabama, he nonetheless saw the possibilities in this form of music, and when in 1909 he moved to Memphis, Tennessee, he took some of the music he had heard in Mississippi and rearranged it for his band.

“It did the business too,” writes Handy. “Folks went wild about it.”

In 1912, with the recording industry still in its infancy, Handy published one of his compositions on paper as Memphis Blues. It was a hit.

“Handy’s Memphis Blues was hugely significant,” says Elijah Wald, author of The Blues: A Very Short Introduction. “It started the blues craze and made the blues a key marketing term.”

Memphis Blues became the song of 1912, the song people were asking to hear in dance halls nationwide.

“Memphis Blues was spread by the sale of sheet music and by the fact that every dance band in America was being asked to play it, and was playing it,” says Wald.

For Handy, writing in the late 1930s, Memphis Blues “was the first of all the many published ‘blues’ and it set a new fashion in American popular music and contributed to the rise of jazz, or, if you prefer, swing, and even boogie-woogie”.

The song seems unremarkable, even boring, today.

This purports to be Handy’s version:

The version I like best is Doc Watson’s, but I can’t find it in embeddable form.

A song I like much better that mentions Memphis, the blues, and WC Handy:

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    The version I like best is Doc Watson’s, but I can’t find it in embeddable form.

    Doc did everything better than any one else 😉 I consider myself to be blessed to have seen him 3 times, unfortunately I never made it to Merlefest.

  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Unless it was done by the Rev. Gary Davis.

  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Not to mention Lightning Hopkins.

    or Muddy Waters, Memphis Slim, Willy Dixon, Otis Spann….

    I gotta stop. I got things to do today.

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    No conversation about the Blues is complete without mention of Robert Johnson.

  5. Mr. Prosser says:

    Thanks for this, it’s a great Sunday relief to read and listen to. Interesting that the recording sounds a bit ragtime and the drum is more a marching snare than a solid backbeat.
    I was stationed in Memphis at the naval air station for training in 1967. I knew some blues but not a lot of background and unfortunately Beale Street was off-limits. Military was not allowed to go there.

  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Don’t know how I did that embed, purely accidental.

    @Mr. Prosser:

    unfortunately Beale Street was off-limits. Military was not allowed to go there.

    That’s just un-American!

  7. I’ve been a blues fan for as long as I can remember (I was listening to Muddy Waters just the other day) and didn’t know this. Thanks.

  8. anjin-san says:

    Some Little Walter:

    & Big Mama Thornton:

  9. Motopilot says:

    Hey. Don’t be forgettin’ Sonny Boy!

  10. mattb says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    I consider myself to be blessed to have seen him 3 times, unfortunately I never made it to Merlefest.

    I made it to one Merlefest in the mid 2000’s thanks to my brother (who got to a few). It was, hands down, the best music festival I ever attended.

  11. al-Ameda says:

    I personally prefer a more modern urban blues style, such as the John Coltrane Quartet playing “Afro Blue” or “I Want to Talk About You.”

  12. anjin-san says:
  13. al-Ameda says:

    @anjin-san:
    Sometimes Coltrane just takes my breath away …

  14. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: You didn’t; I went back and edited–which i’ve now done for all those with video links upthread. All you need to do is include the embed code, which is under Share/Embed and looks something like this:

    [iframe width=”420″ height=”315″ src=”http://www.youtube.com/embed/sCQfTNOC5aE” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen][/iframe]

    Actually, exactly like that, except that the brackets are < and >.

  15. anjin-san says:

    @ al-Ameda

    Coletrane’s work on ballads is exquisite, it’s a shame there is not more of it.

  16. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner:

    All you need to do is include the embed code, which is under Share/Embed and looks something like this:

    Gesundheit… and Thanx…. Thought I had f’d up somehow. Anyway… I love the Blues… could listen to them all week year long.@mattb:

    I made it to one Merlefest

    I am jealous…

  17. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @mattb: I made a couple of attempts at Winfield, and both times was denied.

  18. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Best concert I ever went to: Doc Watson and Doctor John at the Calvin Theatre in Washington MO. After they had done their individual sets they did a a half hour or so together… and melded perfectly.

  19. anjin-san says:
  20. anjin-san says:
  21. stonetools says:

    There is still some good blues music coming out of that area.

    Try Kenny Neal from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

    Kenny Neal

    Thank you, Mr. Handy, for bringing this music to the rest of America and the world.