st. louis blues

Bessie Smith

William Christopher (W.C.) Handy, by writing and recording his “Memphis Blues,” had not only put a Southern city on the musical map but had also created a new musical form called the Blues. On a later trip to St. Louis where he ran across a lonely woman in the street moping about a lost love, the peripatetic musician sat down in a bar there called Pwee and wrote a memorably sad song about the woman. The song, “St. Louis Blues” was first published on September 11, 1914, and has gone on to become a Blues classic.

“W.C. Handy, whose father was a Methodist preacher in Florence, Alabama, was 40 when he wrote the song. When it was completed he learned from a past mistake – when he had sold all rights to his 1912 composition Memphis Blues for just 50 dollars – and held on to the rights for St. Louis Blues. At the time of his death in 1958, aged 84, Handy was earning more than $25,000 in royalties a year from that song alone,” states an article in The Telegraph

There have been various versions of St. Louis Blues, in both jazz and blues styles. Probably the best blues version was recorded by Bessie Smith. Part of the lyrics she sang are as follows:

“I hate to see de evenin’ sun go down, 
Hate to see de evenin’ sun go down
‘Cause ma baby, he done lef’ dis town.
Feelin’ tomorrow like I feel today, 
Feel tomorrow like I feel today, 
I’ll pack my trunk, make ma git away.”

“Saint Louis woman wid her diamon’ rings 
Pulls dat man ‘roun’ by her apron strings.
‘Twant for powder an’ for store-bought hair, 
De man ah love would not gone nowhere, nowhere.
Got de Saint Louis Blues jes as blue as ah can be. 
That man got a heart lak a rock cast in the sea.”

The remark in the last line about “a rock cast into the sea” was what Handy heard the woman in the St. Louis street say when bemoaning to herself how she really felt after being jilted by her lover. W.C. Handy’s contribution notwithstanding, a form of the early Blues, and later jazz, had been popular years before in St. Louis. It was called “ragtime” and was mainly an instrumental form played with horns and drums.

“Ragtime was very popular in St. Louis and the integration of blues music from Mississippi created what became known as the St. Louis blues. Ragtime was born in the African-American communities of St. Louis in the 1890s. This style takes traditional march form, much like the music of John Philip Sousa, and adds the syncopated, or ‘ragged’, rhythms of African music. The style fell out of favor in the early 20th century with the rise of jazz but many compare the American rag to European minuets, mazurkas and waltzes. The rhythm of ragtime had an influence on later composers, such as Satie, Debussy and Stravinsky. Jazz influences also steamed into St. Louis aboard northbound riverboats from New Orleans,” explains a 2016 article in VPR by James Stewart.

The steamboat connection to the Blues and Jazz is interesting. After the Civil War (1861-65) ended, the musical instruments used by the armies on both sides dumped their no-longer-needed drums, fifes, bugles and the like onto steamboats and shipped the lot down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. This pile of cheap army surplus instruments contributed greatly to the music scene there, particularly in the parlors of bordellos where musicians entertained the “guests.” Louis Armstrong’s early career was spent in one such establishment.

“St. Louis Blues had seeped into the American consciousness from the moment a vaudeville female impersonator called Charles Anderson started using it in his act in October 1914. St. Louis Blues was also played in the 1914 Charles Chaplin film, ‘The Star Boarder’, and was sung by Minnie Mouse in a 1931 Disney film. It inspired a novel by William Faulkner and a play by John Paul Sartre,” explains The Telegraph article.

The 1925 version sung by Bessie Smith, with Louis Armstrong on coronet, was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1993. In 1929, Bessie Smith made her only film appearance, starring in a movie titled “St. Louis Blues” that was based on this song. The 1929 version by Louis Armstrong & His Orchestra (with Red Allen) was inducted in 2008.

Bessie Smith’s St. Louis Blues 1925 version