Today in History

Today in History: September 28

Father of the Blues

The Memphis Blues
"The Memphis Blues,"
Historic American Sheet Music, 1850-1920

On September 28, 1912, the publication of William Christopher Handy's "Memphis Blues" changed the course of American popular song. Handy introduced an African-American folk tradition, the blues, into mainstream music. By the 1960s, the blues sound had significantly influenced the development of jazz and rock and roll, quintessential American musical forms.

"Worry Blues"
Field holler performed by W. S. Harrison, Sylvester "Texas Stavin' Chain" Jones, and Wallace "Stavin' Chain" Chains,
recorded at Ramsey State Farm, Otey, Texas,
April 23, 1939.

Real Audio Format

wav Format, 5.6 Mb

"She Brought My Breakfast"
Field holler performed by Jim Henry "Duck" Horne,
Home of Spencer and Caroline Horne,
near Livingston, Sumter County, Alabama,
May 28, 1939.

Real Audio Format

wav Format, 3.7 Mb

The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip

Born in Alabama in 1873, W. C. Handy attended Teachers Agricultural and Mechanical College in Huntsville. After a short stint teaching school, he began playing cornet with dance bands that traveled the Mississippi Delta. Handy transcribed and collected blues songs that he had heard on the road in the 1890s, but continued to play the ragtime dance tunes that audiences demanded.

By 1909, Handy had settled in Memphis, Tennessee, a Delta city with a cosmopolitan population and a limitless appetite for music. In Memphis, even mayoral races warranted musical accompaniment. As one of the top bandleaders in town, Handy was hired by aspiring mayor E. H. Crump. To attract attention to his candidate, Handy wrote an original tune entitled "Mister Crump" which merged the blues sound with popular ragtime style by slightly flattening the third tone of the scale. Overwhelmingly popular, the song contributed to electoral success for Crump and musical success for Handy.

W.C. Handy
William Christopher Handy,
July 17, 1941.
Creative Americans: Portraits by Carl Van Vechten, 1932-1964

On Saturday, September 28, 1912, Handy's "Mister Crump," retitled "Memphis Blues," went on sale at Bry's Department Store in Memphis.  Although the first 1,000 copies sold out in three days, Handy was told that the song had flopped. When the publisher offered to buy the rights for just fifty dollars, the composer agreed.

Swindled out of his first big hit, Handy went on to produce "St. Louis Blues" in 1914, "Beale St. Blues" in 1916, and other popular works. By the time of his death in 1958, W. C. Handy was recognized across the world as the "Father of the Blues."

Blues Compositions by William Christopher Handy

Memphis Blues
"Memphis Blues"

Beale Street Blues
"Beale Street Blues"

St. Louis Blues
"St. Louis Blues"

Yellow Dog Rag
"Yellow Dog Rag"

Historic American Sheet Music, 1850-1920

Early Impressions of California

map, 1876
Bird's Eye View of San Diego,
California, 1876,
Drawn by E. S. Glover,
A. L. Bancroft & Co., lithographers, c1876.
Panoramic Maps

On September 28, 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo of Portugal, sailing under the Spanish flag, sailed into San Diego Bay. While exploring the northwest shores of Mexico, Cabrillo became the first European to reach California.

Cabrillo's observations may have informed Diego Gutierrez's draft of the first map of America to include the name California, which references Baja California, or Cape California, at the far southern part of Baja. This image is displayed in the Inventing America section of the Library of Congress online exhibition 1492: An Ongoing Voyage.

Over 300 years later, gold miner Pringle Shaw described San Diego in his 1857 book Ramblings in California as:

a favorite resort for horse stealers and suspicious looking greasers…chiefly from its remoteness and the uncertain communication with the more civilized districts…[The climate resembles] the balmiest portions of Italy…In '54 but one physician existed in the place, and he died of a broken-heart, occasioned, it was said, by a want of practice. He complained…of the citizens' obstinacy in adhering to robust health.

Pringle Shaw,
"Part III: Face of the Country, Agriculture and Labor" in
Ramblings in California…, 1857[?].
"California as I Saw It": First-Person Narratives of California’s Early Years, 1849-1900

By 1888, Harriet Harper observed a more refined San Diego. In her Letters from California, she describes San Diego as:

curled up in the arms of her beautiful bay…[with] long lines of yellow graveled streets… many wooden houses…[and] utter innocence of flower and foliage…. An electric railway runs past my windows; steam motors take you in any direction. The principal streets have electric lights and cement pavements, and there is an encouraging amount of building going on…
all conditions are favorable for a future great city.

Harriet Harper,
"VII: The Place of Ramona's Marriage—A Trip into Mexico" in
Letters from California
September 7, 1888.
"California as I Saw It:" First-Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849-1900

This 1915 cityscape shows the continued growth and prosperity of San Diego in the early twentieth century.

panorama of San Diego
Panorama #1, San Diego, California,
Taking the Long View: Panoramic Photographs, 1851-1991