Early Impressions of California

On September 28, 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo of Portugal, sailing under the Spanish flag, sailed into San Diego Bay. While exploring the northwest shores of Mexico, Cabrillo became the first European to reach California. Cabrillo’s 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. “California as I Saw It:” First-Person Narratives of California’s Early Years, 1849-1900

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 “Mister Crump,” retitled “The Memphis Blues External,” 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 hear 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 “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.

William Christopher Handy’s “Memphis Blues” was published. From “Jump Back in Time (Progressive Era 1890-1913)” in America’s Story from America’s Library.

A Lasting Impact

Swindled out of his first big hit, W.C. Handy went on to produce “St. Louis Blues External” in 1914, “Beale Street Blues External” 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. 1490-1920. 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 one of sixty-one short films available in Variety Stage Motion Pictures, part of the American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment, 1870-1920 collection. Also be sure to visit the Library of Congress YouTube page to view a recording of dancers doing the cake walk External, as well as a comedy cake walk External.

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

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