W.C. Handy – The St. Louis Blues (with sheet music) – The Most Wideley Known Ragtime Composition
St. Louis Blues: WC Handy’s Atypical Blues
In the year 1909, mayoral elections were held in the city of Memphis. Three candidates presented themselves: Mr. Williams, Mr. Talbert and Mr. Crump. The latter hired the musician WC Handy so that his band would be present at all the rallies and also to compose a specific melody for the campaign.
Thus was born the song titled “Mr. Crump” who accompanied the mayor in all his electoral acts. Mr. Crump won the election.
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After the electoral process, WC Handy put the song away in a drawer. After three years he decided to self-publish it, changed the title to “The Memphis Blues” and waited for results. This came and were disastrous, he barely sold sheet music. Faced with this disaster, he chose to give all the rights to the song to Mr. Z (that’s what he calls him in his autobiography). This person paid his self-publishing expenses and $50.
Mr. Z brought “The Memphis Blues” to the music publisher Theron C. Bennett Co., one of the most important in the country with headquarters in New York and delegations in the most important capitals. Sheet music for Handy’s theme began to sell by the thousands across the country. The first band to record it was the Victor Military Band on July 15, 1914, led by Edward T. King.
Pwee’s saloon, located on Beale Street in Memphis, was the headquarters of Handy and his gang, as well as other African-American formations. It was run by a dark-skinned Italian émigré named Pee Wee.
In the back of the saloon there was a large room where the musicians could check their instruments and take calls for upcoming performances. Pwee’s, like other similar places on Beale Street, never closed so that its regular music lovers could kick back, relax and think about their next projects.
One afternoon in 1914, Handy was in Pwee’s remembering how he had composed “The Memphis Blues” five years earlier in that place. Now his song was popular all over the country. No doubt he had brought her fame as a composer, but due to his wrong decision she did not perceive any profit.
Handy knew that he needed to write another hit song that would bring him fame and money.
For a few moments, his mind reminded him of a trip he had made, a few months ago, to the city of St. Louis. Walking through her streets, she had been approached by a woman who seemed to be tormented because her man had abandoned her and kept repeating like a mantra: “That man has a heart like a piece of rock from the sea”.
Handy managed to get rid of her in a few minutes, but now he could clearly see the woman’s contorted face.
Handy took a pencil and paper and began to write some sentences related to the frustrations of love. In the end, she was like this:
I hate to see the sun go down this afternoon (x2)
/ because my man has gone and left the city / If tomorrow I feel like today (x2)
/ I will pack my bags and leave.
The women of St. Louis with their diamond rings
/ Pick up the men around them
/ And if it wasn’t for this one or that one
/ The man I love wouldn’t have gone anywhere
I have the blues of St. Louis
/ a blues as it should be
/ That man has a heart like a piece of rock in the sea
/ otherwise he would not have abandoned me .
I love my girl like a schoolboy loves his cake
/ like a Kentucky colonel loves his mint
/ I’ll love my man till I die.
St. Louis Blues music, as composed by Handy, has a melodic structure (AABAA). (A) is a 12-bar blues, but (B) “El Puente” has 16 bars and also changed it to the rhythm of the Cuban habanera. This means that it is not a true blues even though such a word is part of its title and that WC Handy is called “The Father of Blues”.
There are hundreds of songs composed in the first two decades of the 20th century that had the word blues embedded in their title without really being it.
WC Handy, with the sheet music for “St. Louis Blues” in hand, visited a number of music publishers without any of them showing the slightest interest in the song. The composer was practically forced to edit it himself and for this he formed, together with Harry Pace, with whom he collaborated on some compositions, the Pace and Handy Music Company in Memphis in September 1914.
The publishing company did not finish starting up and they were right, two years later, with the decision to locate it in New York. In the city of skyscrapers, the scores began to move.
“St. Louis Blues” acquired an immense fame from the middle of the first decade of the 20th century that did not decline until the thirties, and even today it remains in the repertoire of jazz musicians. The first steps she took to earn the popularity she achieved are not very clear.
There are scholars who believe that it was in a club in New York where she was heard for the first time performed by an unknown vocalist, but it so happened that among the public there was a young girl named Ethel Waters (she would be 18 years old) who He asked Handy for permission to include it in his repertoire. She was granted and Ethel strolled “St. Louis Blues” by New York jazz clubs.
Another version tells us that, in the year 1919, “St. Louis Blues” was heard on the Broadway stages, at the Winter Garden Theater (without specifying in which musical), by the actress, singer and dancer Gilda Gray, famous, among other things, for popularizing that dance called “shimmy ” which consists of rocking the shoulders forward and backward in rapid cadence, while the body remains still, and which became so fashionable in the Roaring Twenties.
Among the documentation provided by the “Internet Broadway Database” (IBDB) website, we see that Gilda Gray stepped on the Broadway stage for the first time in the musical entitled “Shubert Gaities of 1919”. On opening night, among the songs performed was WC Handy’s “Beale Street Blues” performed by Gilda Gray. I do not know if the song “St. Louis Blues.”
In 1909, the singer and comedian Sophie Tucker abandoned the minstrels, stopped smearing her face in black, and entered the world of vaudeville. In a few years she became the most famous singer in the country. Although her complexion was white, she sang like black women and also in her repertoire were the most famous Afro-American songs. In the year 1917, she decided to incorporate into her performance “St. Louis Blues.” Tucker spent his entire life touring the country.
First with his “minstrel” company, then with the vaudeville company. At that time, it was said that everything she “touched” Sophie Tucker turned into gold. That happened with “St. Louis Blues”, since thanks to it became very popular throughout the country and the scores began to be sold by the thousands.
The first recording of “St. Louis Blues” was performed by a band of white musicians called the Prince’s Band. This formation was directed by Charles Adams Prince who was born at the end of 1867 in San Francisco.
The information that exists about this musician is quite vague and imprecise. It seems that he was linked to the Columbia record company for a long time, where he was in charge of different tasks. As a musician he led several bands performing everything from Broadway hits to operatic overtures. Some story must have happened between Prince and the Columbia record company so that the English magazine “Hobbies”, in an article remembering his figure and written 15 years after his death, commented:
“The (band) directors can come and go , but we hope, for the pride of Columbia, that Prince is gone forever.”
Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong made two recording sessions together during their artistic careers. On May 26, 1925, they performed two songs. A few months earlier, on January 14, they recorded five songs. Among them was “St. Louis Blues.”
This was the culmination that Handy’s song lacked to fully enter the world of jazz. Suffice it to say that in a statistic that collected the 100 most recorded songs in the period between 1890-1954, “St. Louis Blues” was in second place. The first was for “Silent Night” (Silent Night).
“Saint Louis Blues” crossed the Atlantic in the voices of singers Aileen Stanley and Alberta Hunter. The Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, went to see them perform in London and was so taken with the song that he asked the Scots Guards Pipes & Drums to learn it for him.
They performed it during a social event in Scotland in which the most important guest was Mrs. Ernest Simpson, who would eventually become the Duchess of Windsor. Likewise “St. Louis Blues” sounded at another important act of British royalty, at the wedding of Prince George with Princess Marina of Greece.
WC Handy started writing blues when he was in his early forties. Until then, his musical tastes went in other directions.
WC Handy was born in the city of Florence in the state of Alabama in the year 1873. Both his grandfather and his father were preachers of the Methodist Church and he received a good education, including music. William Christopher did not want to follow in the footsteps of his ancestors and, instead of becoming the third preacher in the family, he decided to dedicate himself entirely to music and make a living from it.
At the age of seventeen he enrolled in the “minstrel shows” where he led a vocal group with which he toured the US, Canada, Mexico and Cuba. Around 1903, Handy received an offer, which he accepted, to lead a gang called “The Knights of Pythias” based in Clarksdale, Mississippi. The music he played included John Philip Sousa-type marches, popular tunes, and arrangements of compositions by Scott Joplin, a musician Handy admired. His interest in Afro-American vernacular music was nil.
One night around the same time, WC Handy was at the station waiting for a train to take him back to his home in Tutwiler, Mississippi. Near him was an old beggar pressing the strings of his guitar with a knife, while he sang music in which the melodic line was repeated three times. His clothes were in tatters, his feet remained bare next to some decrepit shoes; sadness was drawn on his face, and it was an enormous effort to understand the words that came out of his mouth.
WC Handy could barely understand one of the verses he repeated from time to time: “goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog” . When he finished his song, Handy asked the homeless man what it meant and he replied that it was impossible for him to explain it, although he did understand it.
It took WC a while to learn that the word Southern referred to the Southern Pacific Railroad while Dog was an alias for Yellow Dog, the name for the Yazoo Delta Railroad line between the Yazoo River and the Mississippi Delta. In any case, the most important thing for Handy was not to know the meaning of the lyrics of the song but the strange notes that held the words, since for him, they did not have a logical order. With them in mind, he took the train home.
Within weeks, Handy’s band was scheduled to perform in Clarksdale, to be preceded by a singing trio accompanied by guitar, double bass, and mandolin. As soon as he started his performance, the audience got up from their seats and a rain of coins fell on the stage.
When they finished, the amount of money on the floor exceeded what Handy and the seven musicians were going to receive from him. But the most significant thing was that the music that the trio had interpreted had followed the same guidelines as that of the old beggar of the station.
And these are the facts – with their percentage of legend – that paved the way for WC Handy to start writing blues. In 1919, he wrote the song titled “Yellow Dog Blues” where his lyrics contain the phrase that the beggar sang at the station “goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog” , which gives the story a certain packaging.
On April 14, 1949, Dizzy Gillespie’s big band recorded “St. Louis Blues” with be bop in full swing. WC Handy had so many problems with this version that the RCA Victor record company decided not to release it until after the composer died.
Pianist Herbie Hancock released an album in October 1998 titled “Gershwin’s World.” One of the songs he recorded was “St. Louis Blues”, accompanied by the harmonica and the voice of Stevie Wonder. The song received a great reception in the world of jazz, 84 years after being composed.
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