The Memphis Blues: The Role of Beale Street Musicians
Memphis contained a variety of cultural influences, due to its “rich delta soil”. This soil helped contribute to the city’s high economic base as a market, travel and exchange center, attracting a highly diverse population. During the early 20th century many of the arriving African American musicians began moving to an area in Memphis known as Beale Street. Beale Street allowed musicians to create soulful and emotionally charged music relating to the struggles they faced involving racism throughout the country (Charlton 9-10). Beale Street musicians such as W.C Handy later helped popularize a form of music throughout Memphis known as “the blues,” which would eventually become a nationwide craze throughout the United States.
During the early 20th century Beale street contained the “largest urban black population in the south” (Robertson 4). Thousands of African Americans traveled from all over the U.S to Beale Street for a chance at a better lifestyle (Robertson 4). Beale Street attracted many former slaves to its union territory between the 1860’s and the 1870’s (Williams). With them the music they brought “was a blending of European form (12-bar structure) and African traditions (rhythm), accompanied by narrative lyrics (Conover 10). This synthesis of musical cultures helped to shape the development of the music of Memphis, and aided early musicians in creating a style of music later known as the blues.
One important musician who incorporated these styles into the early shaping of the blues was William Christopher Handy. Handy was born eight years after the civil war ended in Florence, Alabama (Robertson 21). He began playing the coronet in the early 1880’s, and one day wished to be part of a brass band, which at the time was “the nation’s most popular form of musical performance, for both black and white musicians and listeners” (Robertson 40-41). By the early 1900’s, Handy and his family relocated...