Monday, February 18, 2013

Real American Blues: "St Louis Blues" WC Handy, Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith

One of the great early blues tunes, W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues" became a huge success in America after it was released in in 1914. In his long career Handy (who was 84 when he died in 1958) wrote dozens of ragtime and blues compositions. "Handy was born in Florence, Alabama, November 16, 1873, the son of former slaves. His first instrument was the coronet, and he advanced from lessons in a barbershop to studying classical music. While still a teenager Handy began teaching school but left for better paying work in a factory. At the age of twenty, he organized a quartet to play the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, a gathering that attracted other musical luminaries of the time, notably ragtime pianist Scott Joplin." (above from The Trailof the Hellhound website: )
He struggled, but was later lauded as a major composer. This ballad celebrating the great metropolis of the Mississippi was his greatest hit.
Here are two versions I like a great deal: one done by a master blues guitarist Big Bill Broonzy in the early thirties, and the other from 1925 is by none other than the great vocalist Bessie Smith and the inimitable "Satchmo" Louis Armstrong, a version of which was recognized by the Library of Congress as a national treasure.
From Wikipedia's entry on St Louis Blues: "Writing about the first time "St Louis Blues" was played (1914),[9] Handy notes that "The one-step and other dances had been done to the tempo of Memphis Blues... When St Louis Blues was written the tango was in vogue. I tricked the dancers by arranging a tango introduction, breaking abruptly into a low-down blues. My eyes swept the floor anxiously, then suddenly I saw lightning strike. The dancers seemed electrified. Something within them came suddenly to life. An instinct that wanted so much to live, to fling its arms to spread joy, took them by the heels."[6]
"Researcher Guy Marco, in his book Encyclopedia of Recorded Sound in the United States, stated that the first audio recording of "Saint Louis Blues" was by Al Bernard in July 1918 on the record company label Aeolian-Vocalion (cat. no. 12148). This is however not true, since Columbia's house band, directed by Charles A. Prince, had recorded a released instrumental version already in December 1915 (Columbia A5772). Bernard's version may have been the first US issue to include the lyrics though. However, by then Ciro's Club Coon Orchestra, a group of black American artists appearing in Britain, had already recorded a version including the lyrics in September 1917 (UK Columbia 699).
Since the 1910s, the number has enjoyed great popularity not only as a song but also as an instrumental."

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