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 traveling the Mississippi Delta. Handy transcribed and collected blues songs he heard on the road in the 1890s, but continued to play the ragtime dance tunes 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." In "Mister Crump," Handy 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 thousand copies sold out in three days, Handy was told the song 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."