November 16 in Memphis Music History
Only very rarely is it okay not to listen to your parents. This is especially true if you end up being a world famous composer, musician, and bandleader and you end up with awards, parks and memorials named after you.
As a boy whose Father and Grandfather were ministers in Alabama, when he brought a guitar home he bought with money from odd jobs he was told to take that “sinful thing” back. His Father would pay for organ lessons, but the boy wanted to play a cornet. He learned the instrument and joined a band but hid it all from his parents. He did take voice lessons and so learned classical music as well. His other music lesson was working in a smelting furnace. He heard music in the shovels when the crew got together, some of it intentional as they passed the time between shoveling coal. He became a bandleader and music teacher at 19. His quartet headed to Chicago to play the World’s Fair only to find they were early. While waiting they traveled to St Louis but couldn’t find work. The bandleader moved to Indiana and did play in Chicago the next year. After traveling and playing as a poor and hungry musician, he moved back south. He formally taught music and organized another group. While traveling and playing around the south, especially Mississippi, he heard new music. At a railroad station he heard a man sliding a knife along the strings of an acoustic guitar. The “weirdest sound” he ever heard, the rhythm and the line “where the Southern crosses the Yellow Dog” stuck with him. When he moved to Memphis, he was influenced by that sound as he formalized and published that music, the first to do so. His compositions changed the world of music. The Blues Music Awards formerly named after him are still presented in Memphis, the “Home of the Blues” and the “Birthplace of Rock ‘n Roll”, every year.
That “devil’s music”, the songs and rhythms of the furnace and fields, and yes, disobeying his Father, allowed this man to reach his destiny. The first to publish those sounds, later called the blues, the writer and bandleader of Memphis music beginning with “The Memphis Blues” in 1912 and including “The Yellow Dog Blues” and so many others, born on this day in 1873 in Florence Alabama – William Christopher, “WC” Handy!