Today in History: September 28
Father of the Blues
On September 28, 1912, the publication of William Christopher Handy's "Memphis Blues" changed the course of American popular song. Handy introduced an African-American folk tradition, the blues, into mainstream music. By the 1960s, the blues sound had significantly influenced the development of jazz and rock and roll, quintessential American musical forms.
Born in Alabama in 1873, W. C. Handy attended Teachers Agricultural and Mechanical College in Huntsville. After a short stint teaching school, he began playing cornet with dance bands that traveled the Mississippi Delta. Handy transcribed and collected blues songs that he had heard on the road in the 1890s, but continued to play the ragtime dance tunes that audiences demanded.
By 1909, Handy had settled in Memphis, Tennessee, a Delta city with a cosmopolitan population and a limitless appetite for music. In Memphis, even mayoral races warranted musical accompaniment. As one of the top bandleaders in town, Handy was hired by aspiring mayor E. H. Crump. To attract attention to his candidate, Handy wrote an original tune entitled "Mister Crump" which merged the blues sound with popular ragtime style by slightly flattening the third tone of the scale. Overwhelmingly popular, the song contributed to electoral success for Crump and musical success for Handy.
On Saturday, September 28, 1912, Handy's "Mister Crump," retitled "Memphis Blues," went on sale at Bry's Department Store in Memphis. Although the first 1,000 copies sold out in three days, Handy was told that the song had flopped. When the publisher offered to buy the rights for just fifty dollars, the composer agreed.
Swindled out of his first big hit, Handy went on to produce "St. Louis Blues" in 1914, "Beale St. Blues" in 1916, and other popular works. By the time of his death in 1958, W. C. Handy was recognized across the world as the "Father of the Blues."
Blues Compositions by William Christopher Handy
- Search the collection Historic American Sheet Music, 1850-1920 on Handy to browse early published sheet music of Handy's tunes. Search on the keyword blues to view sheet music inspired by the "Father of the Blues."
- Search the collection Southern Mosaic: The John And Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip on the terms blues and field holler to hear rural Southerners sing the type of tunes that inspired Handy.
- Visit the LC/Ameritech award-winning collection, African-American Sheet Music, 1850-1920: Selected from the Collections of Brown University. Search on keywords such as Handy, blues, ragtime, rag or cake walk to view more musical works in this tradition. In viewing this collection, keep in mind that the Library of Congress presents these documents as part of the record of the past. These primary historical documents reflect the attitudes, perspectives, and beliefs of different times. The Library of Congress and Brown University do not endorse the views expressed in these collections, which may contain materials offensive to some readers.
- Visit the collection William P. Gottlieb: Photographs from the Golden Age of Jazz to see photographs of the musicians who elaborated on Handy's musical tradition during the 1930s.
- View photographs of the city that Handy immortalized in song. Search on Memphis in the collections:
- In the 1910s and 1920s, songs like "Memphis Blues" and "Beale Street Blues" were considered ragtime dance tunes. Learn about how the emergence of ragtime music changed popular dance. Search on ragtime in the American Memory collection An American Ballroom Companion: Dance Instruction Manuals, ca. 1490-1920. Five dance manuals in this collection were published in 1914, including Modern Dancing by the famous exhibition ballroom dancers, Mr. and Mrs. Vernon Castle.
- One of the first dances developed for ragtime, the Cake Walk, is one of sixty-one short films available in Variety Stage Motion Pictures, part of the American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment, 1870-1920 collection.
- Visit Music, Theatre and Dance, A Performing Arts Digital Library. The collections and special presentations on this site include A Volcano of Delight: Historic Sheet Music 1800-1922, approximately 9,000 items published from 1800 to 1922, including the sheet music to Memphis Blues.
On September 28, 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo of Portugal, sailing under the Spanish flag, sailed into San Diego Bay. While exploring the northwest shores of Mexico, Cabrillo became the first European to reach California.
Cabrillo's observations may have informed Diego Gutierrez's draft of the first map of America to include the name California, which references Baja California, or Cape California, at the far southern part of Baja. This image is displayed in the Inventing America section of the Library of Congress online exhibition 1492: An Ongoing Voyage.
Over 300 years later, gold miner Pringle Shaw described San Diego in his 1857 book Ramblings in California as:
a favorite resort for horse stealers and suspicious looking greasers…chiefly from its remoteness and the uncertain communication with the more civilized districts…[The climate resembles] the balmiest portions of Italy…In '54 but one physician existed in the place, and he died of a broken-heart, occasioned, it was said, by a want of practice. He complained…of the citizens' obstinacy in adhering to robust health.
By 1888, Harriet Harper observed a more refined San Diego. In her Letters from California, she describes San Diego as:
curled up in the arms of her beautiful bay…[with] long lines of yellow graveled streets… many wooden houses…[and] utter innocence of flower and foliage…. An electric railway runs past my windows; steam motors take you in any direction. The principal streets have electric lights and cement pavements, and there is an encouraging amount of building going on…
all conditions are favorable for a future great city.
"VII: The Place of Ramona's Marriage—A Trip into Mexico" in
Letters from California
September 7, 1888.
"California as I Saw It:" First-Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849-1900
This 1915 cityscape shows the continued growth and prosperity of San Diego in the early twentieth century.
- For more information on early exploration of the Americas visit 1492: An Ongoing Voyage, an online Library of Congress exhibition.
- The American Memory collection "California as I Saw It": First-Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849-1900 contains many accounts of nineteenth-century San Diego. Search the collection on San Diego to retrieve items similar to the works quoted above.
- Search on San Diego in Parallel Histories: Spain, the United States, and the American Frontier, a bilingual, multi-format English-Spanish digital library site that explores the history, geography, and culture of Spain and the interactions between Spain and the United States from the 15th century to the present for information on the exploration and early settlement of that area.
- California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties Collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell contains transcriptions of songs from the gold rush era, including "Joe Bowers" and "Sweet Betsy from Pike."
- A search on San Diego in American Memory's Photos and Prints collections yields a wealth of materials on that city.