Handy Ushers in the Commercial Blues Era

W. C. Handy transformed the native music of the backwoods, work camps, and cotton fields of the American South into a commercial craze.

Summary of Event

Along the lower Mississippi River, from Memphis down to New Orleans, the blues evolved during the post-Civil War years. At a train station in Tutwiler, Mississippi, a black musician named W. C. Handy “rediscovered” the blues in 1903 while listening to a guitarist use a knife to strum a song that Handy subsequently wrote down as his own “Yellow Dog Blues.” The occasion reminded him that, eight years before, he had heard another lone singer “hollering” his blues. Handy’s full enlightenment about this aspect of the Delta cultures surrounding him came as his band, the Knights of Pythias, was playing for a Cleveland, Mississippi, dance later in the year. As bandleader, he was asked to perform “native” music—that is, to play blues. Unable to comply, he allowed three ragged local musicians to do so; when they brought the house down, he realized the music’s commercial value. The event changed his career. Handy later laid legitimate claim to the title “father of the blues,” and the rest of the nation, within a few decades, would embrace the music. Music;blues
Blues music
[kw]Handy Ushers in the Commercial Blues Era (1910’s)
[kw]Blues Era, Handy Ushers in the Commercial (1910’s)
Blues music
[g]United States;1910’s: Handy Ushers in the Commercial Blues Era[02500]
[c]Music;1910’s: Handy Ushers in the Commercial Blues Era[02500]
[c]Entertainment;1910’s: Handy Ushers in the Commercial Blues Era[02500]
Handy, W. C.
Jefferson, Blind Lemon
Smith, Bessie
Rainey, Ma

Although blues music has been identified accurately as part of jazz, Jazz
Music;jazz its provenance historically, although murky, was separate. Jazz represented a southern confluence of multiracial and multiethnic urban influences that initially were geographically specific to cities of the southern Atlantic and Gulf coasts. The spread of jazz and its fusion with other musical forms was another continuing story.

Blues music, in contrast, has African origins. The music underwent transformation in the rural areas and small towns of the lower Mississippi, and by the late 1890’s it was specific to people who performed harsh physical labor in the cotton fields of the large Delta plantations, in mining and logging camps, in levee and railroad construction, in freight loading, and in the perpetually debt-ridden, segregated, unlettered, and depressed worlds of crop-lien and sharecrop farming. The blues were powerfully emotive, and the sole instrument capable of rendering “blue notes” (sung usually between the third and seventh degrees of the scale) was the human voice. Accompaniment, when there was any, was generally by guitar, which merely filled in as a second voice. In their archaic form, the blues’ twelve-bar stanzas of three lines each did not even lend themselves to musical notation; the rhythm, rhyme, and subtle poetry were the singer’s to provide.

Raw, rural, and steeped in subsistence-level living—although their range of subjects was vast—the blues dealt mainly with inevitabilities: hard labor, death, bad crops, sex, loss of a lover, sickness, low wages, scarce money, drink, jail, and a world awash in other troubles. Nevertheless, there sometimes was also an implicit and wry shared humor in the music, as the purpose of the blues was to alleviate distress by means of the traditional open and candid vocal expression especially common to isolated, segregated, and—in formal terms—unschooled people.

Handy himself did not come from such a background. Born in Florence, Alabama, the son of a Methodist minister, he was reared in a household that discouraged music and condemned the life of musicians. Nevertheless, thanks to his teachers, he had by the age of ten shown some musical precocity. Following high school, he spent a year as a cornet player with several bands and with Chicago’s Mahara Minstrels; he also spent two years as an instructor at Teacher’s Agricultural and Mechanical College for Negroes in Huntsville, Alabama. After that came the revelations in Tutwiler and Cleveland and several more years as a bandleader in Mississippi and Tennessee.

As late as 1907, when Handy and the lyricist-singer Harry Pace Pace, Harry started a music publishing business near Memphis’s thriving black music center on Beale Street, Handy was still refraining from publishing his own compositions, although he had behind him a quarter century of acquaintance with all types of music and was enamored of the blues. His “Memphis Blues,” “Memphis Blues” (Handy)[Memphis Blues (Handy)] written on request expressly for the Memphis mayoral campaign of flamboyant Ed Crump in 1909, however, rocked the city and established Handy’s songwriting reputation. It was while he was reminiscing about an earlier visit to the notorious Targee Street in St. Louis that he composed what proved to be his world-famous “St. Louis Blues” “St. Louis Blues” (Handy)[Saint Louis Blues (Handy)] in 1914.

As a sophisticated and urbane musician, Handy effectively added the fruits of his own experience to the archaic rural blues that had captured his imagination in the Mississippi Delta. When he and Pace moved their business to New York in 1918, Handy became the first man to compose the blues formally as well as the first to popularize them commercially.


The excitement that attended Handy’s “Memphis Blues,” the influence of which was initially local, swept New York by 1912. His spectacularly successful “St. Louis Blues,” which enjoyed an even more fervent reception in Harlem and soon became nationally popular, introduced the American public to a secondhand and sophisticated blues music that was removed from its rural origins. Blues such as Handy’s, which represented the compositions of rather worldly musicians and vaudevillians, became popular throughout the United States. Such music was sung by urbanized cabaret and torch singers, including Ohio’s Mamie Smith, Smith, Mamie whose origins were neither rural nor southern.

What mattered most in catapulting the blues into general recognition and popularity was their recording, and Handy’s successes unquestionably encouraged his imitators to move in that direction. Perry Bradford, Bradford, Perry who had moved from Alabama to Harlem, was foremost in persuading the General Phonograph Company to record Mamie Smith singing his “Crazy Blues” in 1920. This first vocal blues recording, Musical recordings;Mamie Smith[Smith, Mamie] which sold more than a million copies in six months, is regarded as a milestone by music historians. Reaching an immense audience, it constituted a cultural event. Instantly, it brought forth from black communities across the country, where superb music had flourished locally for years, a host of blues composers, singers, and bands who performed for the enjoyment of eager audiences.

The success of Smith’s record further encouraged recording companies to tap the hunger of American blacks for reproductions of their authentic music. The subsequent spate of “race records”—a designation that carried proud, rather than pejorative, connotations for the increasingly self-conscious blacks of the 1920’s—not only whetted racial pride but also stimulated a search for more genuine blues songs and singers.

No one filled the bill better than Chattanooga’s magnificent, if tragic, Bessie Smith, soon to reign as “Empress of the Blues.” Before her death in an auto accident, Smith sang with her uniquely poignant voice among a constellation of singers and performers who made the blues a national treasure. Among these personalities were Ma Rainey and several of her protégés, including Bertha “Chippie” Hill and Ida Cox, and a number of young jazz musicians who would use blues as a base for their idiom, including Fletcher “Smack” Henderson, James P. Johnson, and Louis Armstrong. In addition, Bessie Smith and her blues interpretations were direct inspirations to later great blues, jazz, and gospel singers such as Janis Joplin, Billie Holiday, and Mahalia Jackson.

Bessie Smith’s “down-home” genius also helped to focus attention on the need to record original and authentic forms of rural, or archaic, blues and their variations, including the field “hollers,” before those who sang them were gone. A major catalyst in this quest was the remarkably knowledgeable Blind Lemon Jefferson, a Texas blues singer who moved from regional to national fame by way of his recordings. The efforts of Jefferson and others brought recognition to musicians such as Daddy Stovepipe and Pappa Charlie Jackson—both of whom recorded in 1924—as well as to Delta bluesman Charley Patton, the unaccompanied field hollerer Texas Alexander, Ragtime Henry Thomas, gospel blues performer Blind Willie Johnson, and not least to Jefferson’s proclaimed protégés Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter), Josh White, and Sam “Lightning” Hopkins.

Others who recorded their way to prominence during the 1920’s were Mississippi’s Lonnie Johnson and Big Bill Broonzy, hillbilly bluesman Coley Jones, and Jelly Roll Morton, who composed his “New Orleans Blues” in 1902 and subsequently gained fame for melding blues, ragtime, and brass band music. Such performers composed, played, and sang more than two thousand variously styled blues recordings during the blues boom that followed Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” in 1914 and soared to a peak during the 1920’s.

By the 1930’s, the blues in their variety had launched the careers of numerous outstanding singers, composers, and musicians and had been intensively recorded. The blues had likewise served as a vehicle for bringing black music into the American mainstream, simply because the music conveyed emotions that members of all races could feel and appreciate. Equally important, the blues lived on in their original forms at the same time they were also woven into the fabric of jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, and country music. Music;blues
Blues music

Further Reading

  • Charters, Samuel Barclay. The Blues Makers. New York: Da Capo Press, 1991. Volume reprints two works: The Bluesmen: The Story of the Music and the Men Who Made Blues and Sweet as the Showers of Rain. Discusses the origins of the blues as well as individual musicians and songs from Alabama, Mississippi, and East Texas. Includes many fine illustrations and photographs, brief notes, and index.
  • _______. The Roots of the Blues: An African Search. 1981. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1991. Describes the author’s search for sources of blues: men, instruments, and songs from portions of West Africa from which slaves were taken to the United States. Augmented by two volumes of recordings. Includes many photographs.
  • Dale, Rodney. The World of Jazz. Oxford, England: Phaidon, 1980. Chapter 3 deals specifically in survey fashion with the evolution of the blues and provides thumbnail biographies of some of the great blues singers and players, with accompanying photographs. Good introduction to the subject. Deals well with the blues’ integration into jazz. Includes appendixes, notes on musicians’ specialties, and brief index.
  • Ferris, William R. Blues from the Delta. New York: Da Capo Press, 1984. Places Delta blues in social and historical perspective, from the early days to B. B. King, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf. Includes many blues lyrics and reproduces conversations, letters, and marvelous photos to provide a feel for the region’s blues folk. Includes notes, bibliography, extensive discography, filmography, and index.
  • Handy, William Christopher. Father of the Blues: An Autobiography. 1941. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1985. Interesting and useful, if only because it is one of the lengthiest and most detailed autobiographies of its kind. A better composer by far than a writer, Handy nevertheless presents a fascinating life story. Includes a chronological list of his compositions, arrangements, and books along with a brief index.
  • Malone, Bill C., and David Stricklin. Southern Music/American Music. Rev. ed. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2003. A fine study, engagingly written, broad in range and rich in detail. Integrates information about the blues into a discussion of the evolution of all southern music, including hillbilly, Cajun, gospel, country, rock, and soul. Chapters proceed chronologically, so there is a sense of the historical relationships among these various musical forms. Includes photographs, bibliographical notes, and index.
  • Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. 3d ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997. Excellent scholarly account of the subject provides both background and important detail. Includes a splendid critical bibliography and discography as well as numerous selections from scores and an extensive index.
  • Wardlow, Gayle Dean. Chasin’ That Devil Music: Searching for the Blues. San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 1998. Describes the author’s search for early recordings and documentation of the stories and songs of blues artists (many of which appear on an accompanying CD). Focuses on Delta blues singers of the early twentieth century.

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