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.
Read more at BBC News – WC Handy’s Memphis Blues: The Song of 1912.