“Enjoying your writing, thanks!”
Wes@wes_oneill, 28 January 2014, Bristol, England.
|The Banjo Player, 1856. William Sidney Mount.
UPDATED AND REFORMATTED March 23, 2020.
BLUES MUSE 51.
When most people think of the earliest days of the blues, they often imagine rural African Americans playing rudimentary delta blues on acoustic guitars. But, in reality, it wasn’t like that.The banjo and violin were the instruments of choice for most rural African Americans in the nineteenth century, although barrel-house piano playing in Texas was making its mark in the 1870s and 1880s, with more black musicians becoming acquainted with the ivories due to the freedom following the end of the Civil War.
The blowing of horns in brass bands had been popular since the 1830s and, by the 1890s, horns had been added to the dance orchestras of the day, the string bands, particularly in New Orleans. Rhythm guitars had been added to keep the tempo going but, being acoustic, guitars were far too low key to make much of an impression.
Guitars were mainly the preserve of middle class white women, who would genteelly play their parlour guitars for private audiences in their homes. It was this smaller parlour guitar that would later be taken up by most early blues players, rather than the larger concert guitar.
|Early photograph of woman with a parlour guitar
How ironic is it then that this instrument most popular with refined Victorian white women would also be seen as the devil’s instrument by most God-fearing African Americans.
This perception is well documented and one good example comes from the pen of none other than the Undisputed Father of the Blues, the great W.C. Handy.
Writing in his 1941 autobiography, ‘Father of the Blues’, Handy revealed how he saved for, and bought, a guitar in his youth in the 1880s. After taking his new instrument home to the family log cabin (still preserved today in Florence, Alabama – the cabin, not the guitar), William’s father raged, “What possessed you to bring a sinful thing like that into our Christian home?”
Forced to return what his father called “the devil’s plaything” back to where he’d bought it, William Christopher Handy started to take cornet lessons from the local barber instead.
He never did learn the guitar. In the days before blues was given a name, such music was the preserve of moaning African-American field labourers.
|The cabin where W.C. Handy grew up, near Muscle Shoals.
Blues, says America’s respected Gale’s Contemporary Black Biography:
“… was the song of the poorest of the poor, even among slaves, and it belonged to the most illiterate and forgotten, the so-called ‘cornfield niggers’.”
No self-respecting black performer in those days would have a bar of such music. The blues was way, way beneath all but the lowest of the low African Americans and nobody like to be thought of as that. Indeed, many black Americans were middle class themselves, especially in the North.
Just dwell on the moment blues officially started in the United States. These famous words, again from the pen of W.C. Handy, describe the catalyst that is said to have given birth to the blues 111 years ago.
A formally-educated music teacher and bandleader, Handy, aged 30, was waiting for a train at Tutwiler, Mississippi, near his Clarksville home when, as he wrote in his 1949 autobiography:
|Tutwiler, Mississippi,where Handy first heard the blues.
“A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of a guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly. ‘Goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog.’ The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I ever heard.”
The unknown singer was referring to where the Southern railroad crossed another train line, known locally as the Yellow Dog. According to the United States Senate, this was when blues began. Because Handy couldn’t remember the exact date of his encounter, the Senate took an educated guess and chose the year 1903.
|This is where the Southern line crosses the Dog line today.
Thus 2003 was declared the Centennial Year of the Blues, although it was another nine years before a song was published as an actual blues.
That was by the white violinist and band leader Hart Wand in 1912, followed by the African Americans Baby Seals, and then W.C. Handy, all in 1912. Two years after that, of course, in 1914, W.C. Handy’s “The Memphis Blues, became the first blues recorded
That mysterious Tutwiler slide guitarist observed by Handy around 1903, remember, was a hobo: nothing but skin and bone, dressed in rags with holes in his shoes. It would take William Charles Handy to give structure to the blues and, almost single-handedly, make the genre respectable.
More about the origins and development of the blues, long before 1903 and 50 years after, can be found on the following links.