Early Impressions of California

Around September 28, 1542, the date given in some sources, Iberian explorers, sailing under the Spanish flag, arrived in San Diego Bay. While exploring the northwest shores of Mexico, they became the first Europeans to reach this part of California. Their observations may have informed Diego Gutierrez’s draft of the first map of America to include the name California (pictured below), which references Baja California, or Cape California, at the far southern part of Baja. This image is displayed in the Inventing America section of the Library of Congress online exhibition 1492: An Ongoing Voyage.

Americae Sive Qvartae Orbis Partis Nova Et Exactissima Descriptio. Diego Gutiérrez, [Antwerp: s.n.], 1562. Discovery and Exploration. Geography & Map Division

By 1888, Harriet Harper observed a more refined San Diego. In her Letters from California, she describes San Diego as:

…curled up in the arms of her beautiful bay…[with] long lines of yellow graveled streets…many wooden houses…[and] utter innocence of flower and foliage…. An electric railway runs past my windows; steam motors take you in any direction. The principal streets have electric lights and cement pavements, and there is an encouraging amount of building going on…all conditions are favorable for a future great city.

“VII: The Place of Ramona’s Marriage—A Trip into Mexico” in Letters from California by Harriet Harper. Portland, ME: Press of B. Thurston & co., 1888. [Image 37+]. “California as I Saw It:” First-Person Narratives of California’s Early Years, 1849 to 1900. General Collections

This 1915 cityscape shows the continued growth and prosperity of San Diego in the early twentieth century.

Panorama #1, San Diego, Calif. Haines Photo Co., c1915. Panoramic Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division

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W.C. Handy, Father of the Blues

On Saturday, September 28, 1912, William Christopher (W. C.) Handy’s Memphis Blues of Mister Crump, retitled The Memphis BluesExternal, went on sale at Bry’s Department Store in Memphis. Although the first 1,000 copies sold out in three days, Handy was told that the song had flopped. When the publisher offered to buy the rights for just fifty dollars, the composer agreed.

Born in Alabama in 1873, Handy attended Teachers Agricultural and Mechanical College in Huntsville. After a short stint teaching school, he began playing cornet with dance bands that traveled the Mississippi Delta. Handy transcribed and collected blues songs that he had heard on the road in the 1890s, but continued to play the ragtime dance tunes that audiences demanded. To identify recordings of W.C. Handy performing, search the American Folklife Center’s Traditional Music and Spoken Word Catalog.

[Portrait of William Christopher Handy]. Carl Van Vechten, photographer, July 17, 1941. Van Vechten Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

By 1909, Handy had settled in Memphis, Tennessee, a Delta city with a cosmopolitan population and a limitless appetite for music. In Memphis, even mayoral races warranted musical accompaniment. As one of the top bandleaders in town, Handy was hired by aspiring mayor E. H. Crump. To attract attention to his candidate, Handy wrote an original tune entitled “Memphis Blues of Mister Crump” which merged the blues sound with popular ragtime style by slightly flattening the third tone of the scale. Overwhelmingly popular, the song contributed to electoral success for Crump and musical success for Handy.

A Lasting Impact

Swindled out of his first big hit, W.C. Handy went on to produce “St. Louis BluesExternal” in 1914, “Beale Street BluesExternal” in 1916, and other popular works. By the time of his death in 1958, W. C. Handy was recognized across the world as the “Father of the Blues.”

Cake Walk. [ca, 1905]. Prints & Photographs Division

In the 1910s and 1920s, songs like “Memphis Blues” and “Beale Street Blues” were considered ragtime dance tunes. The emergence of ragtime music changed popular dance. Search on ragtime in the Library’s digital collection An American Ballroom Companion: Dance Instruction Manuals, ca. 1490 to 1920. Five dance manuals in this collection were published in 1914, including  Modern Dancing by the famous exhibition ballroom dancers, Mr. and Mrs. Vernon Castle. One of the first dances developed for ragtime, the Cake Walk is demonstrated in short films available in Variety Stage Sound Recordings and Motion Pictures. See dancers doing the cake walk, as well as a comedy cake walk.

Black Cinderella Cake Walk. Florence Wood, composer; Peter McCormick, 1900. Ragtime. Music Division

Learn More

  • To identify recordings of W.C. Handy performing, search the American Folklife Center’s Traditional Music and Spoken Word Catalog.  Also, be sure to check out the Alan Lomax Collection for more field recordings of the blues and other forms of traditional American song.
  • A 1914 recording of Memphis Blues by the Victor Military Band was added to the National Recording Registry in 2018. Read an essay that provides more historical background about the song, its composer, and the blues genre.
  • Search our digital collection, Southern Mosaic: The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip using the terms blues and field holler to hear rural Southerners sing the type of tunes that inspired Handy.
  • Visit the award-winning collection, African-American Sheet MusicExternal from the Brown University Library. Search on keywords such as Handy, blues, ragtime, rag or cake walk to view more musical works in this tradition. In viewing this collection, keep in mind that the Library of Congress presents these documents as part of the record of the past. These primary historical documents reflect the attitudes, perspectives, and beliefs of different times. The Library of Congress and Brown University do not endorse the views expressed in these collections, which may contain materials offensive to some readers.
  • Visit the William P. Gottlieb Collection to see photographs of the musicians who elaborated on Handy’s musical tradition during the 1930s.
  • Search the Duke University Library collection Historic American Sheet MusicExternal on Handy to browse early published sheet music of Handy’s tunes. Search on the keyword blues to view sheet music inspired by the “Father of the Blues.”
  • Visit The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America. The collections and special presentations include  Historic Sheet Music 1800 to 1922, approximately 9,000 items published from 1800 to 1922, including the sheet music to  The Memphis Blues.