Fate's Piano Adventures – Unexpected Discoveries in American Music History

I don’t often venture into ‘race’ here, but I thought I’d take a few moments to write about my current piano adventures, and the topic seems even more appropriate given that it’s currently Black History Month.

Getting back into piano, I’ve found a strong desire to learn more than simply old-school “classical” music (Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Mozart…) Last weekend, my wife and I visited a rather large estate sale, and I happened to stumble upon a collection of sheet music. Thinking some of the pieces looked interesting, I grabbed the stack and took it home. Out of the entire stack, one piece in particular drew me in. Yellowed paper, much older than I, marked on the top as “The St. Louis Blues.”

Now, while I may have a significant degree of knowledge on classical music, modern music (past the early 1900s) is not my strong point. My radio does stay tuned to stations playing mostly recent stuff, but I’m not a music historian or ‘nerd’ beyond my little bit of piano. And really, if I had been, I would have immediately recognized the title.

Interested in learning what the song should “actually” sound like after pounding it on the piano for a week, I began doing some research. Quickly, I discovered that this particular song was created by the “Father of the Blues” himself, W.C. Handy. As musician, I can easily recognize the influence of Blues in modern Rock, Metal, Country, and so on. But, I find it fairly amazing that I never really stopped to consider the Blues itself and how it developed. Or the person(s) responsible for its popularization and push into the American mainstream.

The Blues was around before Handy came on the scene, but it was musicians like him that helped popularize and influence American music history as a whole. As time moved on, the St. Louis Blues would become a standard part of Jazz reportoire, played by the likes of Louis Armstrong.

The more I learn of 20th century music history, the more interesting I find the various cross-overs of cultural and racial divides. Even in the past decade, modern music genres have obvious roots in the past crossing racial boundaries:

Studying early and mid 20th century artists like Oscar Peterson, Ray Charles, and now earlier links as well, has definitely aided in understanding how ‘Piano’ works with modern music, and is helping me, I feel, be better at what I do. Interestingly enough, even some of the most stereotypically “white” music – country – has obvious and traceable influences.

Anyway, I leave you with a video on the cross-over between two of my all time favorite musicians – Johnny Cash and Ray Charles.

More on W.C. Handy:
[1] http://www.una.edu/library/about/collections/handy/
[2] http://www.wchandymusicfestival.org/history.html
[3] http://www.biography.com/articles/W.C.-Handy-39700

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