Robert Odell Jr. has lived and worked in Memphis, Tennessee, for several years. He enjoys sharing the rich cultural heritage of his city.
The Song Title Change Earned W.C. Handy a Title
W.C. Handy was the first to write down the genre of music known as the blues. In the early 1900s, Mr. Handy penned his first successful blues song. Handy's blues song quickly gained popularity and acceptance. However, in order to avoid controversy, a young W.C. Handy felt compelled to change the title and lyrics of his work. The song, with its new title, spread all over the world and had an impact on almost every genre of modern music. The decision to make a song title change led W.C. Handy to earn a title himself. His title became, "The Father of The Blues" and he became one of America's most influential songwriters.
What Is Blues Music?
Emerging from work songs, which were based on the musical rhythms of Africa, the blues had its infancy in the Deep South of the United States.
Rooted in slavery, the blues developed from the "pitch and call," also known as "call and response." These vocals were "field hollers" that slaves used while working in the fields. The "field hollers," which were mostly improvised, were a cappella rhythms that the slaves sang in order to ease the doldrums of slave labor. The steady sound of a hoe, pick, or plough, coupled with vibrant, pulsating, calls and responses, bolstered weary spirits. The resulting blues vocalizations allowed for comments on the situations of life.
The repetitive, groove sound of blues music can be found in almost every genre of modern music. Blues scales and chord progressions are present in jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, and many popular forms of music. The first publication of blues sheet music was in the early 1900s.
Blues Was First Penned in a Saloon
In 1909, in a saloon called "Pee Wee" on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, a young William Christopher Handy stood in the middle of a cigar stand in Pee Wee's Saloon and penned his first successful blues song. The musical genre that we call the blues had been written down for the first time. Handy called his song, "Mr. Crump Blues."
A Young W.C. Handy Brought Blues Music to the Masses
The above photos reenact the 1909 occurrence in Pee Wee's Saloon on Beale Street when a young W.C. Handy penned his first blues song entitled, "Mr. Crump Blues." Many have referred to that occurrence as "The Birth of The Blues" because it was the first time the music genre, known as the blues, was written down for the masses to interpret and enjoy.
Modern music was changed forever when in 1909; while in Memphis, TN, a young W.C. Handy stood in the middle of a cigar stand, in Pee Wee's Saloon on Beale Street, and penned his first blues song. The song was called "Mr. Crump Blues" and later became famous as "The Memphis Blues."
The Song Lyrics Were Not Flattering
Young W.C. had to change the name of his "Mr. Crump Blues."
E.H. "Boss" Crump was the mayor of Memphis when W.C. Handy wrote "Mr. Crump Blues." The words of the song were not exactly flattering to the mayor.
In order not to offend "Boss" Crump, Handy renamed the song "The Memphis Blues."
In order not to offend E.H. "Boss" Crump; the mayor of Memphis at that time, W.C. Handy renamed his song, which was called "Mr. Crump Blues", to "The Memphis Blues."
E.H. Crump Never Heard the Lyrics
"Mr. Crump Blues" was written for Mayor E.H. "Boss" Crump of Memphis. Surprisingly Crump never heard the words to W.C. Handy's new tune.
"Boss" Crump did not travel with W.C. Handy's band so he never knew what the song was about.
Mayor "Boss" Crump of Memphis Never Heard the Words To "Mr. Crump Blues"
The above photos are reenactments of a young W.C. Handy demonstrating his new blues song entitled "Mr. Crump Blues" to a receptive audience. Mayor E.H. "Boss" Crump of Memphis never heard the lyrics of the song so he never knew what "Mr. Crump Blues" was about.
W.C. Handy Changed the Lyrics Of "Mr. Crump Blues"
The above photo is a reenactment of a young W.C. Handy (with his hand on his chin) realizing that the lyrics of his blues song entitled "Mr. Crump Blues" would not be flattering to E.H. "Boss" Crump, the mayor of Memphis. Mr. Handy later changed the words of his tune from "Mr. Crump Blues" to "The Memphis Blues."
"Boss" Crump Obtained Many Votes
Ironically, the words of "Mr. Crump" Blues obtained many votes for "Boss Crump."
Pee Wee's Is Where It All Got Started
Pee Wee's Saloon is where it all got started for W.C. Handy. It is also the place where many other things happened.
Pee Wee's Saloon Launched Careers
Pee Wee's Saloon served as a launching pad for the legendary careers of W.C. Handy and many other musicians.
Located on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee; Pee Wee's Saloon was owned and operated by an Italian, standing under 5ft. tall, who was commonly referred to as Pee Wee. The arm wrestling champion of Beale Street; Pee Wee often defeated opponents twice his size in arm Wrestling.
Pee Wee's Was the Place
Pee Wee's Saloon on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee was the place that:
- Housed the first pay telephone in the city of Memphis
- Housed many arm wrestling matches (won mostly by Pee Wee, who stood under 5ft. tall)
- Housed back room gambling
- Launched the musical careers of many aspiring musicians such as W.C. Handy
- Catered the birth of the blues
In the early 20th Century, Pee Wee's Saloon became the favorite meeting spot for Memphis musicians. W. C. Handy used the cigar counter in Pee Wee's to write out song copies for his band members. The song "Mr. Crump," which was written for the 1909 political campaign of Memphis mayor and political boss E.H. Crump, later with new lyrics, became famous as the first published blues song entitled "The Memphis Blues."
The Blues Is Found in Other Music Genre
The blues form can be found in other music genre such as:
- Rhythm & Blues
- Rock & Roll and
- Pop Music
W.C. Handy Changed Modern Music
William Christopher Handy changed the title of his first successful blues song because he was afraid that the title and lyrics would not be palatable to the gruff and domineering "Boss" Crump, the mayor of Memphis at that time. The song with new title, "The Memphis Blues," spread all over the globe and resulted in Handy's designation as "The Father of The Blues." W.C. Handy was the first to write down the soul-stirring, repetitive, groove sound known as the blues. In so doing, he brought the blues to the masses and changed Modern Music forever.
Handy Park Statue on Beale Street in Memphis, TN
Take Me Back To Beale, Book I (Before The Red Ball). Dir. Carolyn Yancy-Gunn. Edited by Robert Odell, Jr. Perfs. Arthur Smith, Tony Patterson, CFA Graduates. DVD. CFA Productions, Inc. Archives