Thursday, November 16, 2023

‘St. Louis Blues’: W.C. Handy’s Singular Song of Woe


Today, Nov. 16th, is the 150th anniversary of the birth of W.C. Handy and JazzProfiles is proud to celebrate it with this piece by the distinguished scholar and curator, John Edward Hasse.

Born 150 years ago this month, the composer fused the pain of love with a rich musical form to craft the most enduring blues of all time.

By John Edward Hasse

Nov. 10, 2023 Wall Street Journal

“In 1893, cornetist W.C. Handy, broke and hungry in St. Louis, had reached a low point in his life. When he encountered “a woman whose pain seemed even greater” than his, he heard her mutter, “Ma man’s got a heart like a rock cast in de sea.” In 1914, now a successful Memphis bandleader, Handy drew on her words, he said, as well as on his imagination and his familiarity with African-American folk culture to write “St. Louis Blues.” “The wail of a lovesick woman for her lost man,” as Handy called it, the piece went on to become one of the most familiar, widely performed American songs of all time. Its opening lines became part of the soundscape:

I hate to see the eve-ning sun go down,

Hate to see the eve-nin’ sun go down.

’Cause my baby, he done left this town.

In respectable households in late 19th-century America, music such as the blues and ragtime were considered disreputable. The son and grandson of preachers who frowned upon secular music, Handy—who was born 150 years ago on Nov. 16, 1873, in Florence, Ala.—had studied classical music and conceded that he “took up with low forms hesitantly.”

As he traveled the South as an itinerant musician, Handy listened closely to the mélange of melodies in the air, began notating songs, and adapted some for publication. He titled his 1941 autobiography “Father of the Blues,” but he did not invent them. Instead, he was the first to notate, arrange, publish and popularize the idiom that previously existed only in aural tradition. He transmuted a fleeting form into something permanent. His songs primed the public’s ears for the down-home, country blues that record companies began issuing in the 1920s. The blues would become a mighty river that flowed through most styles of American music. As a form, its three-line lyric and 12 bars of music washed into country music, jazz, rock ’n’ roll and soul.

Handy gave the world a singular song: fresh, inspired and infectious. With its three themes, “St. Louis Blues” is much richer in musical form and contrast than expected. The first and third themes, both 12-bar blues, pique interest by offering breaks, and the final section includes some boogie-woogie bass figures. The remarkable second theme, a 16-bar strain, is in a minor key and in tango rhythm, a dance step that was wildly popular in 1914. The three different melodies, with their seemingly bent (or “blue”) notes, are singable and memorable.

With their slang and vivid imagery, the lyrics are catchy. While the tone of “St. Louis Blues” is lamenting, the act of singing such a blues provides catharsis for the singer and, by extension, the audience.

Handy promoted “St. Louis Blues” as both composer and publisher. In the 1920s, more than 60 jazz recordings were made of it, and the number increased in the 1930s. Ultimately, whether as a vocal or instrumental, “St. Louis Blues” became the second most recorded American song (“Star Dust,” by Hoagy Carmichael and Mitchell Parish, is first), with versions by artists as varied as Pete Seeger, Chuck Berry, Angela Brown, George Thorogood, Paul Robeson, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong (who made it a signature tune), Sun Ra and Stevie Wonder with Herbie Hancock. As of 2023, more than 2,200 recordings have been made in the jazz tradition alone and hundreds in other genres.

The piece, poet Langston Hughes wrote in 1941, “is sung more than any other song on the air waves, is known in Shanghai and Buenos Aires, Paris and Berlin—in fact, is heard so often in Europe that a great many Europeans think it must be the American National Anthem.” During World War II, when the Nazis denounced jazz, musicians evaded the authorities by masking the song as “La Tristesse de Saint Louis” (“The Sadness of Saint Louis”), “Das Lied vom Heiligen Ludwig” (“The Song of Saint Louis”) or the Czech protest “The Song of Resetová Lhota.”

The song has taken on many guises. In 1940 pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines recorded it as “Boogie Woogie on St. Louis Blues,” in 1944 Glenn Miller’s band transformed it into “St. Louis Blues March,” and in 1955 Perez Prado made it into a mambo. The original can be heard in at least 40 motion pictures, most notably the 16-minute “St. Louis Blues” of 1929, in which Bessie Smith, in her only screen appearance, sings with affective power and majestic sorrow.

In a scene from the documentary “Satchmo the Great” that was filmed in 1956, two years before Handy’s death, the camera captures a touching moment when Louis Armstrong performs “St. Louis Blues” in an overblown orchestral arrangement conducted by Leonard Bernstein, while in the front row the aged, now-blind composer listens transfixed to his signature composition, dabbing tears from his eyes.

The song’s many ideas, compelling contrast, evocative lyrics and plaintive mood—along with Handy’s energetic marketing—combined to make “St. Louis Blues” the most significant and successful blues of all time.”

Mr. Hasse is curator emeritus of American music at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. His books include “Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington” (Da Capo) and “Discover Jazz” (Pearson).

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