Sunday, August 31, 2014
The St. Louis Blues is 100 yrs old.
Composed and arranged by WC Handy in 1914, the song is touted on its original sheet music cover as "The first successful blues published" as well as "The most widely known ragtime composition."
For modern music lovers, that's a confusing blurb, since blues and ragtime sound nothing alike. Yet this strange piece does have elements of blues, mixed with raggy interludes and even a little plagiarism (I recognized "Tuck me to sleep in my old Kaintucky home") among the various themes and modes in the 1914 recording by Handy's orchestra.
"St. Louis" followed Handy's "Memphis Blues" and the "Dallas Blues" by a white composer, Wand Hart. Both were published in 1912, and both are great songs, but neither is actually a blues. Even though Hart attempts a blues-like structure in Dallas's chorus, like Handy's Memphis Blues it remains essentially a fox trot.
The blues -- a series of rhymed couplets in iambic pentameter, with the first line in each stanza repeated, appears prominently for the first time in Handy's pastiche of blues, rags, and pop tunes and lends the song an authenticity earlier efforts lacked. Blues is otherwise noteworthy for its utter lack and total ignorance of romanticism & sentimentality, the characteristics of 19th-century music & culture that cause modern listeners to squirm.
Cultural assimilation is glacially slow. After 1914, 16 years went by before genuine blues patterns entered the musical mainstream, and another 30 years elapsed before white Americans were ready in large numbers for the "real thing," rural blues from the Mississippi Delta, sung 30 years earlier by Robert Johnson.
It would be impossible to overestimate the effect of the release of the first Robert Johnson LP (Columbia, 1961) had on pop music. The record caused Eric Clapton to retire from the scene for over a year and retool his approach to guitar, incorporating a bottleneck slide.
Once Robert Johnson was a pop sensation, the door was opened for the public to assimilate and appreciate other country blues icons, all long dead but not forgotten: Blind Willie McTell, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Charlie Patton, the latter of whom I think of as the absolute heart of Darkness.
It all started 100 yrs ago with "I hate to see the evenin sun go down."