Friday, December 1, 2023

150 years of WC Handy – Seven milestones in blues history

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In 1912, the composer, trumpeter and bandleader WC Handy published “Memphis Blues” – thereby giving the music that had previously only spread orally in the southern United States an official label: the blues.

In its more than 100-year history, the blues has produced many well-known and important pieces. A selection from SRF music editor Roman Hošek.

About the blues

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The exact birth of the blues is unknown.

However, William Christopher Handy is considered the “father of the blues” because he officially published the first blues piece, “Memphis Blues,” in 1912. He was born 150 years ago, on November 16, 1873.

The simple and relatively short song form is just as relevant today as it was back then. Blues is much more than a genre of music – it is an attitude to life.

What makes the blues so powerful? Above all, it is the history of its origins that is closely linked to slavery. The consequences of this continue to concern US society today. The blues serves as a vessel into which some of the suffering and pain can flow

Victor Military Band – The Memphis Blues (1914)

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact birth of the blues. But WC Handy was the first to publish a blues piece on paper in 1912. Two years later the song was recorded for the first time by the Victor Military Band. What’s particularly striking is that the piece doesn’t sound particularly “bluesy”.

Robert Johnson – Cross Road Blues (1937)

Legend has it that blues musician Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to become the best blues musician. The “Cross Road Blues” symbolizes this pact. With this performance, Robert Johnson becomes a great blues role model. He sings, accompanies himself on the guitar and plays solo at the same time – all with an endlessly bluesy expression.

Big Mama Thornton – Hound Dog (1952)

This blues piece became world famous thanks to Elvis Presley. But Big Mama Thornton sang it before him – and how! The power with which she launches into the song is overwhelming. Big Mama Thornton carries on the legacy of the first well-known blues singers Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. But (also) in blues history, women are unfortunately always in the minority.

BB King – The Thrill Is Gone (1969)

No blues leaderboard without the King! BB King is one of the most famous blues musicians ever. The song “The Thrill Is Gone”, which is accompanied by heavenly strings, becomes his signature song. Striking: The piece is written in a minor key, which is rare in blues.

Janis Joplin – Mercedes Benz (1971)

Blues is primarily considered African-American music, but during the 1960s it was increasingly played by white musicians, especially the Rolling Stones and Janis Joplin. “Mercedes Benz,” which is sung a cappella and begins with “Oh Lord” in every last line, refers to the beginnings of the blues.

Eric Clapton – Before You Accuse Me (1992)

Eric Clapton’s acoustic MTV Unplugged performance, in which he played mostly traditional blues pieces, was able to counter the 90s dance floor wave. Many people became aware again that there is also handmade music. “Before You Accuse Me” is the first blues number in this concert and receives great applause from the first bars.

Our Native Daughters – Black Myself (2019)

African American women Amythyst Kiah, Allison Russell, Leyla McCalla and Rhiannon Giddens explore the past of African American women, but also the present. Their joint album is attracting a lot of attention at a time when brutal police operations against African Americans are once again making headlines. “Black Myself” is the impressive album opener.

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