“Enjoying your writing, thanks!”
Wes@wes_oneill, 28 January 2014, Bristol, England.

The Banjo Player, 1856. William Sidney Mount.

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.
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
In the days before
blues was given a name, such music was the preserve of moaning African-

The cabin where W.C. Handy grew up, near Muscle Shoals.

field labourers. 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

This is where the Southern line crosses the Dog line today.

and chose the
year 1903. 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.

 In the USA, get your free previews on this link: