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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Memphis and Black Music Month

By Presidential proclamation, June is Black Music Month. We in the Memphis area are fortunate to be at the crossroads of musical history.

Memphis is the home of Stax Records where, in an era of segregation, black and white musicians worked together to create some of the nation’s top R&B hits – many of which are songs that you think came from Detroit. Memphis is also the home of Sun Recording Studio which produced Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and a kid who radio listeners thought was black. His name was Elvis. Sun, under the leadership of Sam Phillips, had already been recording blues musicians such as B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf. Ike Turner was his talent scout at the time.

But Memphis’ musical roots go much deeper than that. Famed composer W. C. Handy lived, composed and recorded for many years in Memphis. Already known as the "Father of the Blues," Handy was told by George Gershwin, "Your work is the grandfather of mine."

Handy was born in 1874 in a Florence, AL log cabin that his grandfather had built. Although he displayed an intense aptitude and interest in music as a youngster, his family discouraged his musical inclinations and even made him return the first musical instrument he purchased. Despite their discouragement, Handy secretly took up the trumpet as a teenager and put together a blues band.

The young musician was also an excellent student and, after graduation, stood for and easily passed the teacher’s exam. But disappointed by the minimal teacher’s pay, it didn’t take long before Handy opted out of teaching and worked for the next few years with bands and even a traveling minstrel show.

About 1900, he tried teaching again when he was offered a position on the music faculty of one of the two historically black universities in Alabama. Once again disenchanted with academia, Handy soon left the university and moved to Clarksdale, MS to direct a black band. He finally found his niche and stayed there six years.

In one of the most significant moves of his life, Handy and his band moved to Memphis in 1909 and established themselves on the now-famous Beale St. His first composition in that era was a campaign song for mayoral candidate E.H. Crump (see The title, “Mr. Crump,” was later changed to the “Memphis Blues” and became a legendary hit.

After that came so many hits that he wrote, published and/or recorded including –
St. Louis Blues
Yellow Dog Blues
In the Land Where Cotton is King
Beale St. Blues
Nobody Knows the Trouble I See
In That Great Getting’
Up Morning
Go Down, Moses
and Swing Low Sweet Chariot

Handy became so successful that he began his own publishing business. During the 1930s and 40s, he was composing and publishing and, at the same time, noticing the resulting decline of his eyesight due to the strain. A fall in 1943 rendered him completely blind.

In addition to his music, the multi-talented Handy published books: Blues: An Anthology; Negro Authors and Composers of the United States; and Unsung Americans Sung.

His popularity continued to grow throughout his lifetime. In 1958, his 84th birthday party was held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York and was attended by 800 people. He died later that year. More than 150,000 people lined the funeral route through New York.

His bronze statue stands in Handy Park on Beale Street. The log cabin where he was born in Alabama has been restored and is a museum containing mementoes of his career. Beyond museums and statues, however, is his music which will live on forever.

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