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In Memphis, around the turn of the century, the young William C. Handy accompanies some men on his cornet as they sing a work song. Distressed that they will once again be late for church, the boy's aunt Hagar hides the instrument and rushes him into the Methodist Episcopal Church, where his father, Charles Handy, is the minister. Will plays the organ as the choir sings a hymn, but the bluesy feel of Hagar's singing angers Rev. Handy, and he cuts the song short. Bellowing from the pulpit, Rev. Handy proclaims, "There are only two kinds of music in this world: the devil's and the Lord's." After church, the minister tells his son that he would rather see him dead than making music for the devil. Years pass, and Will returns home from his studies. His sweetheart Elizabeth, whom he plans to marry, is distressed when he confesses that he played with bands and minstrel shows during school vacations. Not wishing to see Will anger his father, Elizabeth encourages him to apply for a teaching position. Will agrees to this plan, but soon afterward, enters a friend's bar and begins to play the piano. When a white man offers him money to play for a political rally, Will enthusiastically writes a song for the candidate, "Sheriff Honest John Baile." He quickly assembles a band, which, along with the song, is so successful that nightclub singer Gogo Germaine invites him to play at the club of her boyfriend Blade. The combination of Gogo's singing and Will's songs is an instant hit, but the young musician keeps this news from his father. One day a lawyer appears and buys the rights to Will's song "Yellow Dog Blues" for an unnamed client. Will's next song is "Careless Love," and as he rehearses it with Gogo, she realizes that he is attracted to her but cautions him not to let his feelings interfere with their music. Bessie May, a choir member who cleans up at the Big Rooster Club, is horrified to see Will at the piano and tells his father everything. Will tries to explain that the music he plays is the music of their people, and when Rev. Handy forces his son to choose between him and the club, Will reluctantly rents a room on Beale Street. Will writes the popular "St. Louis Blues" and "Chantez les Bas," but misses Elizabeth and his family. One day a publisher offers him six hundred dollars for the recording rights to "Yellow Dog Blues," but Will learns that because Blade had earlier bought full rights to the song for only fifty dollars, he no longer owns it. Furious, Will fights with Blade, but Gogo reminds him that there will be other songs. When royalty checks do begin to appear, Will, remembering his deceased mother's wish for a piano, buys a beautiful instrument for his father and plays "Morning Star" on its keys. Rev. Handy is unmoved, however. Gogo announces that she and Will have been offered work in New York, but after she leaves, Will buries his head in his hands and tells Elizabeth that he has gone blind. Believing that the affliction is God's punishment for his evil music, Will moves home and begins to write hymns for the church. As Bessie May sings one of them, "Steal Away to Jesus," his sight suddenly returns, and "Prof. W. C. Handy" begins to offer piano lessons. Dissatisfied with this profession, Will restlessly takes a walk one day. Passing a club, he hears Ella Fitzgerald and the Memphis Jazz Quartet perform his "Beale Street Blues." At home, Hagar sings his "St. Louis Blues," but when he imagines his father's anger at the song, he runs from the house. After praying for guidance, Will leaves town and is soon performing throughout the Midwest as the leader of the W. C. Handy Trio. Anxious to inform Will that the New York Symphony plans to perform "St. Louis Blues" in Aeolian Hall, Gogo returns to Memphis, and when Elizabeth admits that she is unaware of Will's whereabouts, Gogo angrily accuses both Elizabeth and Rev. Handy of trying to destroy him. Elizabeth is moved by the singer's speech, and on the day of the concert, she arrives at the opulent hall with Hagar and Rev. Handy. The minister is astonished when the symphony's conductor praises his son as the man most responsible for the emergence of America's only pure art form. Will is equally shocked to find his father, his aunt and his onetime sweetheart backstage. Father and son embrace, and Will performs his song with the orchestra.