SONG: St. Louis Blues
ARTIST: Bessie Smith
Listen to it here:
St. Louis Blues was written in 1913 by W.C. Handy and was a massive hit, despite there being no music charts (they charted the song’s success by sheet music sales!). Many blues songs at the time were traditional or melodies and tropes passed down, but St. Louis Blues is a completely original Handy composition. Handy collected royalties of around $25,000 a year for about 40 years which in 2020 is about $222,000 per annum.
The song has been recorded many times, but most famously by Bessie Smith. Bessie’s version is just herself, harmonium and cornet (played by no other than Louis Armstrong) and in it she bemoans that her love has run away with some fancy St. Louis dame. The song later inspired a 1929 movie of the same name, also Bessie’s only film role.
Although the song has ‘blues’ in the title, blues purists don’t consider it a true blues song as it features syncopated ragtime rhythms which T-Bone Walker considered too ‘dressed up’ to be a blues song.
The 1910 census shows Bessie Smith 16 years of age that year and based on the date her family celebrated her birthday, she was born April 15, 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Both of her parents died when Bessie was quite young, which left her and her brother and her sister to fend for themselves. She and her brother Andrew started busking on street corners to earn some pennies. Andrew joined a performance troupe and when Bessie was old enough they brought her on as a dancer where she was taught to sing by Ma Rainey, known as “The Mother of the Blues’.
Bessie started her own career in earnest in Atlanta in 1920 where she became well known in the east and the south, and began her recording career in 1923 where she was signed by Columbia for their ‘race records’ series (yikes). After that her popularity grew and she was the highest paid black entertainer of the time and was nicknamed Queen of the Blues and Empress of the Blues. Sadly, the Great Depression was soon making it impossible for people to afford luxuries like recorded music, so Bessie’s recording career was cut short and then advent of sound in motion pictures effectively ended Vaudeville and subsequently Bessie’s show touring career.
A note about Bessie’s personal life – she was married to a man for many years despite infidelity on both sides, including Bessie with many women. When the marriage finally dissolved, she entered a common law relationship with an old friend named Richard Morgan, who turns out to be vibraphone legend Lionel Hampton’s uncle.
As previously mentioned Bessie made a film appearance in the 1929 movie St. Louis Blues where she sings the eponymous song and had a minor foray into swing music in the 1930s, but her life was cut short in an automobile accident in 1937.
Interesting fact about Bessie – she was buried in an unmarked grave until no other than Janis Joplin and her friend Juanita Green erected a tombstone at her burial site in 1970.
Interesting fact about the song – the NHL team St. Louis Blues were in fact named after the song.
I really like Bessie’s voice. I find sometimes older blues and jazz vocalists had a weird dated affect, but Bessie still sounds good, her voice full. It almost sounds like she had some formal training, compared to other roots and blues singers of around that time. I feel like the combo of harmonium and cornet super bizarre, like they were trying to find what a blues combo should look and sound like (this ain’t it). When I read the cornet was played by Louis Armstrong, I had an ‘oh, duh’ moment, because when you hear it, who else could it be? I listened to the acapella version from the movie as well, which is also well sung by miss Bessie.
Wow, harmonium is just so weird. It just feels like it doesn’t really do the blues. I guess that’s why it didn’t really stick around for blues recordings after this one much. Bessie Smith’s voice is just so perfect, and the slow, languid way she sings this song feels right. Louis Armstrong is recognizable from his first note, and he just always sounds so great. The right amount of filling in without getting in the way. This version sounds super ethereal and otherworldly, and it’s a very weird combination of instruments. It almost feels like those weird fun house versions of songs that play in movies when someone’s having a bad trip! All in all I like it.
Average mark out of 10:
*A mark of 8/10 or higher means this is definitely worth buying!
Other notable versions of this song:
Dizzy Gillespie swings it! (Apparently W.C. Handy did NOT approve)
Herbie Hancock with Stevie Wonder for a VERY Wonder-esque offering:
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One thought on “Song 2: St. Louis Blues”
It’s funny that blues “purists” would get hung up on instrumentation rather than composition, performance and feeling. I consider Bessie’s rendition – harmonium included – to sound more “pure” blues than much of the electric stuff that came to follow.
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