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Ch. 05: Classic Blues – The Early Years


In the beginning, there was basically just one shade of the blues. It was called “Delta” blues and originated in that area on either side of the Mississippi River in the delta region of Mississippi and Louisiana. However, it was not restricted to the delta region as early delta bluesmen took their sound as far west as Texas and as far east Tennessee and the Carolinas. Before long, delta blues could have been more accurately called “rural” or “country” blues because of the migration that was taking place to other rural areas of the south.

But, ironically, it wasn’t a delta bluesman who first took the blues to a level of popularity in America.

W. C. Handy – Father of the Blues

W.C. Handy was, by any account, the closest thing to an African-American aristocrat entertainer that 1900 America knew. Born in Alabama, Handy was trained formally in music on the cornet, the piano and composition before getting jobs with various minstrel and traveling tent shows in his early ‘20s. By the early 1900’s he had developed a nine-piece band which provided entertainment and dance music for the more elite in the African-American community.

The story goes that one night in 1903, while waiting for a train in Tutwiler, Mississippi, Handy was woken from a nap by the unusual sound of a man at the end of the railroad platform. The singer was singing such a sad melody in such an unusual way and accompanying himself by strumming a guitar while sliding a pocket knife up and down the neck. Handy apparently scribbled some of the lyrics, melody and chord structure down on a piece of paper in his vest pocket. When he got home, he crafted the scribbling into a formal piece of music. For the next couple of years, Handy incorporated elements of what he heard from blues artists around the south into novelty songs which appeared in his variety shows.

It wasn’t until 1912, with the publishing of his “Memphis Blues” that blues was given any attention by the mainstream American public. Within a couple of years, Handy had successfully published a dozen composed blues songs, including “St. Louis Blues” which formally launched a “blues craze” in middle and upper class America.

While Handy’s compositions definitely contained elements of the delta blues, they were but a polished, sanitized, concert version of the raw delta blues. With trained black singers like “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith, the blues by W. C. Handy and a few other “blues composers” began to fill the concert, recital and music halls of Boston, Philadelphia and New York City. Popular they were; authentic, they weren’t.

Regardless of the acclaim, Handy’s “blues product” was as similar to the original as a slice of “processed cheese product” resembles the taste of a slice of good sharp cheddar cheese.

Bessie Smith – “Empress of the Blues”
Bessie Smith – Empress of the Blues

Bessie Smith had traveled from Tennessee to Atlanta to Philadelphia and New Jersey just in time for the blues craze of the early ’20s. Her voice was striking, her personality charismatic, her lifestyle loose and wild; all perfect characteristics for a blues singer. Although she was not the first female to record a blues song, when she did finally record a song, “Down Hearted Blues” in 1923, it sold over 750,000 singles in six months. Over the next seven years, Smith recorded over 150 songs, many with jazz greats like Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson. Just before the stock market crash of 1929, Smith recorded her last hit song, prophetically entitled “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” With the Depression, record companies failed, recording contracts were dissolved and singers went unemployed. In the seven years of her recording and performing blues songs, Smith set the standard for every female blues and blues-influenced singer from Billie Holiday to Janis Joplin. She is remembered today as the “Empress of the Blues.”

The widespread exposure given this popular form by W. C. Handy earned him the title of “Father of the Blues”, whether or not he actually deserved it. Just as Stephen Foster was recognized as the “Father of American Popular Music” even though he didn’t actually invent American popular music, but played a crucial role in its rise to respectability, Handy was the first to treat this rural folk music with class, giving it an air of credibility in the ears of the public.

Since his death, he has been honored on a United States postage stamp as “Father of the Blues,” a statue of him exists in a Memphis park and the most prestigious honors in blues music are given out at the annual Handy Awards in Memphis.

Before W.C. Handy wrote down those notes on a piece of paper in a train station in 1903, blues did exist. But there was no name, no face, no voice to record and recognize as an authentic bluesman.

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Study Units

An Overview

Ch. 1: Understanding Pitch

Ch. 2: Understanding Musical Pulse

Ch. 3: Understanding Volume

Ch. 4: Understanding Tone

Ch. 5: Understanding Melody

Ch. 6: Understanding Harmony

Ch. 7: Understanding Rhythm

Ch. 8: Understanding Bass

Ch. 9: Understanding Countermelody

Ch. 10: Understanding Structure

Ch. 11: Understanding Instrumentation

Ch. 12: Understanding Tempo

An Overview

Ch. 1: 19th Century: Pre-Foster

Ch. 2: Folk Music by the People

Ch. 3: Popular Music in its Infancy

Ch. 4: Stephen Foster – “Father of American Popular Music”

Ch. 5: The Importance of Stephen Foster

Ch. 6: Scott Joplin – “King of Ragtime”

Ch. 7: The Player Piano – Automated Music

Ch. 8: John Philip Sousa – “The March King”

Ch. 9: John Philip Sousa – Recording Artist and Activist

An Overview

Ch. 1: John Lomax – Recording American Roots Music

Ch. 2: Woody Guthrie – “Father of Modern American Folk Music”

Ch. 3: Leadbelly & Pete Seeger: End of the First Wave

Ch. 4: The Kingston Trio – Beginning of the Second Wave

Ch. 5: Joan Baez – “First Lady of Folk Music”

Ch. 6: Peter, Paul & Mary – Balancing the Message

Ch. 7: Robert Zimmerman – The Beginning of an American Icon

Ch. 8: Dylan in New York City

Ch. 9: Dylan after Newport

Ch. 10: The Importance of Dylan

Ch. 11: Folk Music in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: The Roots of Country

Ch. 2: Bristol Beginnings

Ch. 3: The Grand Ole Opry

Ch. 4: Cowboys and the Movies

Ch. 5: Western Swing

Ch. 6: Bluegrass: Hillbilly on Caffeine

Ch. 7: Honky-tonk: Merging Two into One

Ch. 8: The Nashville Sound: Country-Pop

Ch. 9: Rockabilly – Country meets R&B

Ch. 10: Country Feminists Find Their Voice

Ch. 11: The Bakersfield Sound

Ch. 12: Austin “Outlaw” Country

Ch. 13: Neo-Traditionalists at the end of the 20th Century

Ch. 14: Mainstreaming Country in the ‘90s

Ch. 15: Redesigning Country in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: What is Jazz?

Ch. 2: Before It Was Jazz

Ch. 3: Jazz is Born!

Ch. 4: Early Jazz Musicians

Ch. 5: Louis Armstrong

Ch. 6: Chicago and Harlem – Hub of 1920s Jazz

Ch. 7: Big Band – Jazz Swing!

Ch. 8: Big Band Musicians and Singers

Ch. 9: Jump Blues and Bop

Ch. 10: Cool Jazz

Ch. 11: Hard Bop

Ch. 12: Free Jazz – Breaking the Rules

Ch. 13: Fusion – The Jazz-Rock-Funk Experience

Ch. 14: Third Stream and World Jazz

Ch. 15: New Age & Smooth Jazz

Ch. 16: Summary – Jazz Lives!

An Overview

Ch. 1: Blues – The Granddaddy of American Popular Music

Ch. 2: Where Did the Blues Come From?

Ch. 3: What Are the Blues?

Ch. 4: How to Build the Blues

Ch. 5: Classic Blues – The Early Years

Ch. 6: Delta Blues – Authentic Beginnings

Ch. 7: Blues in the City – Migration and Power

Ch. 8: Blues in Britain – Redefining the Masters

Ch. 9: Contemporary Blues – Maturity and Respect

Ch. 10: The Relevancy of the Blues Today

Ch. 1: Timelines, Cultures & Technology

Ch. 2: Pre-Rock Influences

Ch. 3: Rock is Born!

Ch. 4: Rock is Named

Ch. 5: Doo-Wop

Ch. 6: Independent Record Labels

Ch. 7: Technology Shapes Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 8: The Plan to Mainstream Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Payola – Rock ‘n’ Roll’s First Scandal

Ch. 1: Crafting Sound in the Studio/Producers and Hit Songs

Ch. 2: West Coast Sound: Beach, Surf, and Teens

Ch. 3: The British Invasion: Two Prongs – Pop & Blues

Ch. 4: Motown and the Development of a Black Pop-Rock Sound

Ch. 5: Soul Music: Gospel and R&B in the Deep South

Ch. 6: The Sounds of Bubble Gum Pop-Rock

Ch. 7: The Arrival of Folk-Rock

Ch. 8: Psychedelic Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Early Guitar Gods of Rock

Ch. 10: Rock Festivals: The Rise and Fall of Music, Peace, and Love

Ch. 11: Anti-Woodstock and Shock Rock Movements

Ch. 1: Technological Breakthroughs

Ch. 2: Electronic Dance Music

Ch. 3: Hip-Hop & Rap – An Introduction

Ch. 4: The Beginnings of Rap

Ch. 5: Old School Rap – Up From the Streets

Ch. 6: Rap’s Golden Age

Ch. 7: East Coast – Political Rap

Ch. 8: West Coast – Gangsta Rap

Ch. 9: The Fragmentation of Rap – Pop, Party & More

Ch. 10: Further Fragmentation – Different Directions

Ch. 11: The Importance of Rap

Ch. 1: Musical Stage Productions in America before the 1800s

Ch. 2: Minstrel Shows and Melodramas

Ch. 3: Stage Presentations in the Late 19th Century

Ch. 4: Early 20th Century: Revues and Operettas

Ch. 5: The Arrival of the Modern American Musical

Ch. 6: Great Partnerships in Book-Musicals

Ch. 7: Musical Theatre Composers in the mid-Century

Ch. 8: Fresh Voices on the Stage in the 1960s

Ch. 9: Two Dominant Forces at the End of the Century

Ch. 10: New Voices at the End of the Century

Ch. 11: New Voices, New Sounds in the New Century

Ch. 12: Musical Theatre Glossary

Ch. 13: Is it “Theatre” or “Theater”?

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