The blues is an orphan. No single person can take credit for inventing this unique American musical form. It was born from extreme hardship and suffering. The slave trade murdered, raped and kidnapped Africans and transported them away from their home in the bottom of ships. Slave owners removed the identity of the slaves, by taking away their language, religion, history and names. This is the most serious case of the blues in the history of the world.
The psychological well-being of any child or group of people is dependent on an intimate knowledge of their parents, especially when they have suffered a serious trauma. So, it is important for modern African-American music lovers to know the answer to one simple question: Who’s your daddy?
Many people have claimed to be the “Father of the Blues”. But, an African-American composer, musician and music publisher named William Christopher Handy is the man who catapulted the blues into the mainstream of American popular music. W. C. Handy published a song in 1912 called “Memphis Blues.” The song started a blues craze and was popular with both black and white people. It launched the blues as a mass entertainment genre that would transform popular music worldwide.
The song spread by the sale of sheet music and by the fact that every dance band in America was being was playing it. Handy was not rewarded financially, because he sold the rights to the song. As a result, he set up a business to retain ownership of his songs and to create his own publishing venture. Morton Harvey was the first to sing “Memphis Blues” on record. His rendition of the song on Victor records was cut on Oct. 2, 1914 and issued in early 1915. It is the earliest known vocal record of a song with “blues” in the title.
The following version of the Memphis Blues is played and sung by Louis Armstrong, who is founding father of Jazz. It is probably the best version of the song and was Armstrong’s favourite.
Handy’s next hit was called “St. Louis Blues,” which was released in 1914 under the Pace & Handy Music Company. The song told the story of the hardships Handy experienced in this city. Handy produced other hits including “Yellow Dog Blues” (1914) and “Beale Street Blues” (1916). He would eventually copyright and compose dozens of songs. His business became known as Handy Brothers Music Company, after Pace left the venture.
W.C. Handy said the essence of blues music was revealed to him in 1903, when he was working as a band leader in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He was passing through the little town of Tutwiler and ran into an itinerant street guitarist at the train station.
“A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages,” said Handy in his 1941 autobiography, Father of the Blues. “As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of a guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I ever heard.”
The following video of Bukka White demonstrates the slashing slide style and pounding chords that Handy observed at the train station. White was born on a farm near Houston, Mississippi, Nov. 12, 1909.
The music Handy heard was “weird” because it was new. The man was singing “Goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog,” which referred to the crossing of the Southern and Yazoo & Mississippi Valley railroads in Moorhead, forty-two miles to the south. The railway was nicknamed the “Dog,” or “Yellow Dog.” Handy later published an adaptation of this song as “Yellow Dog Blues,”
Without getting too technical, Handy imposed a somewhat-artificial structure on blues music, which is known as the 12-bar form with its three-chord basic structure. The blues progression has a distinctive form in lyrics, phrase, chord structure, and duration. In its basic form, it is predominantly based on the I-IV-V chords of a key. The blues can be played in any key.The 12-bar blues or blues changes is one of the most prominent chord progressions in modern popular music.
W.C. Handy was born in Florence, Alabama in 1873, to Elizabeth Brewer and Charles Barnard Handy, who were emancipated slaves. Handy, who was musical from an early age, lived in a log cabin built by his grandfather, a local minister.
The young Handy pursued his passion for the cornet, despite opposition of his father. Charles Handy, who was also a minister, discouraged his son from playing secular music. W.C. Handy was supported in his musical pursuits by his maternal grandmother. However, his father paid for organ lessons, which was an instrument approved by the church.
At the age of 15, Handy joined a minstrel show, only to return home when the traveling troupe ran out of money. Later, he studied at the Teachers Agricultural and Mechanical College in Huntsville, Alabama, receiving his degree in 1892. He then became a schoolteacher in Birmingham in 1893 and briefly worked in a piping company, but decided to pursue his music career.
On his second venture from home, Handy formed a band and set off for the Chicago World Fair in 1893, with 20 cents in his pocket. But, when the fair was postponed, the band was forced to split. Handy experienced sporadic employment, poverty, hunger and homelessness in the next few years and ended up in St. Louis. He tried to forget this experience. However, it was the inspiration for his first great hit.
Handy died in March 1958 at the age of 84 at Sydenham Hospital in Harlem of acute bronchial pneumonia. He enjoyed a long and often ground-breaking career as a bandleader, composer, and publisher.
As the Father of the Blues, Handy provided a strong foundation for the development of blues as a popular musical form in America, as well as all other genres of modern African-American music. As a result, Handy is the father of a large family of children, including gospel, spirituals, ragtime, jazz, house, doo-wop, rhythm and blues, rap, rock and roll, funk, hip hop, soul, disco and techno.