September 1914. Memphis. William Christopher Handy – better known as W. C. Handy – sat down behind a piano, determined to write a new song, but he found himself distracted by what he called “a seed of bitterness” weighing heavily on his mind.
His 1912 composition “The Memphis Blues” was his first runaway hit. By September 1914, it was being performed by bands up and down the Mississippi and even on the radio. The Castles – a pair of famous dance instructors – had used the song to introduce the world to the foxtrot – itself another runaway hit. Yet for all the song’s success, Handy had received no more than $50 in compensation. Such a story was not uncommon at the time, but Handy took the lesson personally. It left him shrewd, and eager to self-publish another hit to reap the profits he felt he deserved.
So on that September day, Handy went down to Beale Street, rented a room with a piano, closed the door on the outside world, and began to write. When he left the room, he had composed “Saint Louis Blues.”
In his autobiography Father of the Blues, Handy describes in improbable detail the genesis of the song, right down to his decision to write in the key of G because he’d met an unnamed slack-key guitarist who was overly fond of it. Portions of the account undoubtedly represent deliberate mythmaking (a regular theme among jazz musician autobiographies), but myth has value if we approach the story as Handy’s own attempt at understanding his song’s place in history.
My first decision was that my new song would be another blues, true to the soil and in the tradition of “Memphis Blues.” Ragtime, I had decided, was passing out. But this number would go beyond its predecessor and break new ground. [...] I would begin with a down-home ditty fit to go with twanging banjos and yellow shoes. Songs of this sort could become tremendous hits sometimes. [...] I wanted such success, but I was determined that my song would have an important difference. The emotions that it expressed were going to be real. Moreover, it was going to be cut to the native blues patterns.
Handy pulled together several emotionally-powerful fragments from his own life. Memories of himself when he visited St Louis as a broke, shirtless, and unshaven vagrant in want of a meal. Near the river he met a grief-stricken woman, drunk and wearing a broken heart on her sleeve. Handy saw her stumble down the street and moan to herself, “My man’s got a heart like a rock cast in the sea.” Drawing on this woman’s words and the feeling contained within, his famous lyric took shape. The song would be the confessions of a woman in love with a man who was cold, hard, and unreachable.
Owing to the success of “Memphis Blues,” Handy decided this new song should be another blues. He drew on the 12-bar blues and its three-line lyrical form, both already established by 1914. He wrote a melody purposely free of ragtime ornamentation and steeped in what he called the “spiritual tradition.” It utilized the flattened notes and smears from the blues scale in a manner rarely committed to musical notation in those days.
But something was missing. Handy recalls
There was something from the tango that I wanted too. The dancers at Dixie Park had convinced me that there was something racial in their response to this rhythm.
Because the tango was so popular at the time, Handy took an ordinary blues – already full of mixed major/minor tonalities – and inserted a Latin-influenced minor-key bridge in the middle, its rhythm and a melody distinct from the rest of the composition. It was meant to catch the attention. It was something new, daring.
That evening at a club called the Alaskan Roof, Handy and his Orchestra performed the song for the first time. Handy – sick with anticipation – watched the dance floor as the first notes sounded. He said it was like lightning striking the crowd; something within the dancers “suddenly came to life.” Decades later, he would summarize the effect the song had on his career:
They say life begins at forty – I wouldn’t know – but I was forty the year “St. Louis Blues” was composed, and ever since then my life has, in one sense at least, revolved around that composition.
Between 1890 and 1954 “St. Louis Blues” was the second most recorded song in America, falling behind only “Silent Night.” The recording by Sophie Tucker in 1917 was the first blues song to sell one million copies.
(I can’t seem to find a version by Tucker’s online. If you do, please post the link in the comments.)
It’s been called the first jazz song, but it came into being when it’s composer had probably not even heard the word jazz. Similarly it had the word blues in its title, but like so many other songs of the period, its status as genuine blues has been a point of contention. For example, blues guitarist T-Bone Walker had this to say:
There’s only one blues [...]. That’s the regular twelve-bar pattern and then you interpret over that. Just write new words or improvise different and you’ve got a new blues. Now, you take a piece like “St. Louis Blues.” Thats a pretty tune and it has a kind of bluesy tone, but that’s not the blues. You can’t dress up the blues. [...] Blues is all by itself.
I’ve puzzled over Walker’s quote for some time now, and I’ve come to realize that is misses the mark. This one song can tell us a great deal about blues, jazz, and at least one pattern of the development of American popular music, and whether it’s authentic blues might be the least interesting question to ask.
Although “St Louis Blues” is most often performed today as a jazz standard, when it was composed in 1914 the word jazz had yet to catch the nation’s attention. It would still be three more years before the first undisputed jazz recordings were made. The blues, however, were increasing in popularity, and it was within that context that Handy’s song appeared. When we think of blues today, we tend to think of guitar and harmonica, alone or as part of R&B combos. The blues meant something very different in 1914. Two years earlier, what many consider to be the first published blues song appeared: “Dallas Blues” by Hart A. Wand. Handy’s more popular “Memphis Blues” was published later that same year, though he would claim it had been written far earlier. It was upon these credentials that Handy would bill himself as the “father of the blues,” but ragtime pieces including the 12-bar blues form date as far back as 1904.
The origin and development of unpublished, folk and semi-professional blues music is about as clear as the Mississippi. No one knows precisely when the blues became the blues or even when the term was first used to describe music. Early blues performers themselves spun contradictory histories that strongly favor their own regional varieties. Some critics have attempted to define the blues such that earlier musical forms count such as work songs and the banjo-fiddle repertoire that yielded minstrel music, but these same genres gave us the many folk-fiddling styles, country, string band music and more. It wipes the term of its distinct meaning to make it cover such a wide array of music. The safest position is that the blues evolved from spirituals, work songs, and popular music by the first decade of the 1900s.
During those first two decades, before recorded music was widely available, new music spread through sheet music. Early on, the blues attained popularity as an extension of ragtime and Tin Pan Alley. It’s also clear that audiences knew that blues as they knew it was derived from rural black music. Based on performance accounts and sheet music illustrations, the blues were tied up in minstrelsy, but with it’s flattened thirds and sevenths and alternating sorrowful and sexual lyrics, it may have been seen as more authentic or more dangerous than minstrel shows, which had become increasingly formulaic and the acceptable outlet for black composers aspiring to write in the popular style.
In his autobiography, Handy reveals quite a lot about his attitude toward the music of rural and poor blacks. Stories he tells emphasize his own professionalism and sophistication, and he thereby distances himself from the roots of this music. A typical example is a conversation between Handy and his aunt. When Handy tells complains that his band is not as popular as some other bands even though his musicians make no mistakes, his aunt replies, “Honey, white folks like to hear colored folks make some mistakes.” Handy as autobiographer comments, “In this one remark can be hidden the source or secret of jazz.” He goes on to compare blue notes and blues techniques for smearing notes with the mistakes made by beginner or self-taught musicians.
The last nine decades have not looked favorably upon Handy’s attitude of superiority. He’s been accused of appropriating the blues without understanding it. For those who appreciate folk blues, Handy’s talk of the “ignorant and illiterate” comes off quite badly. In reading his autobiography, it seems clear to me that Handy felt that he needed an explanation for why he, a musician educated in the European tradition, would incorporate the blues into his compositions. For all his talk of the monotony of the blues, his stereotyped portrayals of folk musicians, and his admission of begrudgingly bowing to white audiences who wanted a more regional or hot style of music from his orchestra, Handy seems to have found something exciting and inspirational in the blues, but he cannot seem to admit any personal emotional connection. Everything is strictly a matter of professional interest for him, as when he writes:
the blues were all born humble but they were not content to stay in the shady districts beyond the railroad trucks. Time came when they put on top hat and tails, so to speak.
Handy approached the blues the best way he knew how: he dressed them up in sophistication, not just a minstrel-like mockery of sophisticated airs. He was determined to make high art out of the blues, and he seems to have genuinely believed this was for the best – for the music, for his race, and for his career.
But rather than be content with quoting Handy’s self-promotion and others’ analysis, we should let the music speak for itself.
“St. Louis Blues” has three sections. The A and C sections are variations on the 12-bar blues form. The B section adopts the rhythm and harmony of a basic tango. In Handy’s own published piano arrangement, the A and C sections deviate very little from a basic blues. Blues might have been novelty music in 1914, but Handy’s arrangement lies at the far end of the scale from the heavily ornamented and pianistic noodling that made up novelty ragtime numbers. Aside from the stride piano bass line and flourishes at the end of phrases, there is little of ragtime here, and the melody is built up from short bluesy phrases with a vocal quality. The lyrics of the A section even follow the three-line AAB stanza form of a traditional blues song.
Harmonically, the A and C sections don’t reach far beyond a basic blues. The A section contains only one II-V7 cadence, that trademark of jazz which would later typify the popular American musical style. The C section includes a series of I-IV-I changes that add a spiritual touch, but it’s the the tango-influenced B section which really shakes things up by adding what Jelly Roll Morton would later call the “Spanish tinge.” Tango rhythms and harmonies had already been used in ragtime to add variety and novelty. Here Handy uses them to accompany a melody that is itself distinctly blues-based. While rhythm section of the band or the left hand of the piano shifts gears, the right hand melody would feel at home in any blues song.
Through combining such elements, Handy managed to compose something new. It was the right mixture between what Handy might have called the “primitive” and the more sophisticated dance orchestra music he preferred. Handy was interpreting southern black idioms for urban and white audiences. He added harmonic complexity, but did it in such a way that it was still familiar and could be freely “ragged up” by musicians. The important question isn’t whether “St. Louis Blues” is blues, jazz, or something else, but why it works in either context and why it works in so many contexts and why it’s become a standard in the American Songbook. The best illustration of this is the recording by Bessie Smith featuring Louis Armstrong on cornet.
Smith’s performance here is what we today call “classic female blues,” the first subgenre of blues to be widely recorded and catch national attention. The phrases of “St Louis Blues” leave it wide open for a vocalist to create her own interpretation, and the pauses leave it open for accompaniment to improvise around the melody. This is in stark contrast to ragtime, which featured melodies which were heavily ornamented and pianistic, difficult to sing and difficult to improvise around. “St Louis Blues” may not be a blues on paper, strictly speaking, but in Smith’s hands it is – or it’s at least indistinguishable from the rest of her repertoire.
At the same time, the work of Armstrong and Fred Longshaw (on harmonium) on the recording could arguably constitute a jazz interpretation. The harmonic structure of Handy’s original composition leaves it open for accompanists to alter the progression and substitute one chord for another in familiar ways. In the Smith/Armstrong recording, the moving inner voices of Longshaw add blue notes, extra coloration, and chromatic cadences to what Handy had written as simple block chords, to be pounded out like a drum beat. Likewise, Handy himself was not much of a hot performer and the published piano part has little in the way of counter-melody, but Armstrong was a great improviser and proves it as only he can on this recording. This illustrates the greater point: the song remains a jazz standard not because of any foresight on Handy’s part but because it contains a great melody over familiar chord progressions. “St Louis Blues” succeeds as a jazz song because jazz musicians are able to make it their own through chord substitution and improvisation while retaining elements of the original.
We can agree with Walker that“blues is all by itself,” but if we eliminate the inauthentic, the polished, and the syncretic from those early decades, we also lose a picture of how contemporary performers, composers, and listeners viewed the music.
Davis, Francis. The history of the blues: The roots, the music, the people from Charley Patton to Robert Cray Francis Davis.
Gioia, Ted. The history of jazz.
Handy, W. C. Father of the blues: An autobiography.