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Each week on the Junior Curators blog, we travel back in time to a different place in Tennessee history. Stories may be about a famous person, place or event from Tennessee’s past. They will include things like priceless artifacts, pictures, videos, and even some games. Be sure to better understand the story by answering the questions at the end of each post.
After learning the story, be sure to share what you've learned with your parents, family, or friends. Try making your own exhibit about it, shooting a movie, or writing a story about it. Let your creativity run wild!
by Jeff Sellers
The day finally arrived. For weeks young W.C. Handy had worked odd jobs. He picked berries. He made soap. He saved and saved. Now he had enough money to buy the guitar he always wanted. Young W.C. loved music. I mean really loved music. He played every chance he could get. Every Sunday he played at church where his father was the local pastor. When he proudly showed the guitar to his mother and father, they were displeased, or unhappy.
W.C. Handy’s boyhood home. (courtesy of Library of Congress)
They thought it was best W.C. return the guitar. Instead, they wanted him to buy a dictionary. Can you believe it? A dictionary! They felt that a dictionary would be more useful. Young W.C. did not let that discourage him. He kept playing and practicing. At church he learned to play gospel songs on the organ. He even learned to arrange music. Arranging music means getting many people playing different instruments to play one song.
When he wasn’t in school he learned to play many different musical instruments like the trumpet, trombone, and clarinet. He began to play all around his hometown of Florence, Alabama.
As W.C. Handy grew he got jobs teaching and working in a factory. None of those jobs made him as happy as playing music. While living in Birmingham, Alabama he decided to form a band with friends. They traveled all over the country playing at fairs and minstrel shows. Minstrel shows were musical and comedy acts played in a theater.
While in St. Louis the band ran out of money and broke up. This was one of the toughest times in W.C.’s life. He had little money and no job. However, he heard a new music that he really loved. It would be called the Blues music.
W.C. got married, formed another band and moved to Memphis, Tennessee. Memphis had many musicians that played Blues on a street called Beale Street. That is where W.C. set up shop. He became inspired to play and write many new songs.
He became so well known that the mayor asked him to write a song for his election campaign. W.C. wrote a song and titled it Mr. Crump, after the mayor’s name. The citizens of Memphis loved it and re-elected the mayor! W.C. changed the tune of Mr. Crump and renamed it the Memphis Blues. It became very popular.
St. Louis Blues sheet music (Tennessee State Museum Collection)
One day a business man in New York offered W.C. one hundred dollars for the rights to his song. A person who owns the rights to a song is the person who owns it. They could make money by selling records. One hundred dollars was a lot of money back then. W.C. sold the man his Memphis Blues. It became a huge hit around the world. It made a lot of money for the businessman, but not W.C.
W.C. learned his lesson. He would never sell the rights to his music again. A few years later, he remembered his hard times in St. Louis and wrote the St. Louis Blues. It became an even bigger hit! W.C. became internationally famous. He recorded and produced more and more songs. This helped make Blues music popular around the world.
W.C. Handy autographed photograph (Tennessee State Museum Collection)
Over the years Blues music grew in popularity. Other artists like Muddy Waters, Bessie Smith, and B.B. King became famous too. Today, Memphis is known as the Home of the Blues. For his efforts in making Blues famous, W.C. Handy is known as the “Father of the Blues.”
It all started with a boy that had to exchange his guitar for a dictionary. Young W.C. Handy did not let that stop him. He kept playing and practicing. He worked hard. He believed in himself and became the “Father of the Blues.”
The best way to learn about Blues music is to listen to it. Click here on the link below to hear W.C. Handy’s famous St. Louis Blues.
pastor: a minister or priest in charge of a church
discourage: to try to make someone not want to do something
campaign: a series of events to try and convince someone to elect a person to office.
rights: when a person owns a song and can copy it and sell it.
Why did W.C. Handy have to give back the guitar he bought?
What became W.C. Handy’s most famous song?
Why is W.C. Handy known as the Father of the Blues?
Listen to W.C. Handy’s Memphis Blues. Then listen to the St. Louis Blues sung by Tennessean, Bessie Smith. How are they alike? How are they different? Which do you like better?
Saint Louis Blues w/ Bessie Smith:
Virtual Field Trip:
Visit the Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis, TN
Tennessee State Social Studies Standard:
5.51 Discuss the development of the music industry in Tennessee, including (T.C.A. § 49-6-1028):
• Country music (e.g., Grand Ole Opry, WSM, and the Carter family)
• Blues music (e.g., W.C. Handy and Bessie Smith)
• Rock ‘n’ roll (e.g., Elvis Presley, Stax Records, and Sun Studio)
Jeff Sellers is the Tennessee State Museum Director of Education & Community Engagement