St. Louis Blues

St. Louis Blues” is an American popular song composed by W. C. Handy in the blues style. It remains a fundamental part of jazzmusicians’ repertoire. It was also one of the first blues songs to succeed as a pop song. It has been performed by numerous musicians of all styles from Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith to Count BasieGlenn MillerGuy Lombardo, and the Boston Pops Orchestra. It has been called “the jazzman’s Hamlet“.[1] Published in September 1914 by Handy’s own company, it later gained such popularity that it inspired the dance step the “Foxtrot“.

The version with Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong on cornet was inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1993. The 1929 version by Louis Armstrong & His Orchestra (with Henry “Red” Allen) was inducted there in 2008.




Handy said he had been inspired by a chance meeting with a woman on the streets of St. Louis distraught over her husband’s absence, who lamented, “Ma man’s got a heart like a rock cast in de sea”, a key line of the song.[2][3] Details of the story vary but agree on the meeting and the phrase.

At the time of his death in 1958, Handy was earning royalties upwards of US$25,000 annually for the song. The original published sheet music is available online at the United StatesLibrary of Congress in a searchable database of African American music from Brown University.[4]


The form is unusual in that the verses are the now familiar standard twelve-bar blues in common time with three lines of lyrics, the first two lines repeated, but it also has a 16-bar bridgewritten in the habanera rhythm, popularly called the “Spanish Tinge“, and identified by Handy as tango[5] Handy’s tango-like rhythm is notated as a dotted quarter note, followed by an eighth, and two quarter notes, with no slurs or ties, and is seen in the introduction as well as the sixteen-measure bridge.[6]

While blues became often simple and repetitive in form, “St. Louis Blues” has multiple complementary and contrasting strains, similar to classic ragtime compositions. Handy said in writing “St. Louis Blues” his objective was “to combine ragtime syncopation with a real melody in the spiritual tradition.”[7]

With traditional New Orleans and New Orleans style bands, the tune is one of a handful which includes a set traditional solo. The clarinet solo with a distinctive series of rising partialswas first recorded by Larry Shields on the 1921 Original Dixieland Jass Band record. It is not found on any earlier recordings nor published orchestrations of the tune. Shields is often credited with creating this solo; however, alternative claims have been made for other early New Orleans clarinetists, including Emile Barnes.


“St. Louis Blues”
Single by Bessie Smith
Released 1925
Format 78 rpm record
Recorded January 14, 1925, New York City, NY
Genre Blues
Length 3:11
Label Columbia Records
Writer(s) W. C. Handy

Writing about the first time “St Louis Blues” was played (1914),[8] 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 lightening 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.”[9]

Researcher Guy Marco, in his book Encyclopedia of Recorded Sound in the United States, stated that the first audio recording of “St. Louis Blues” was by Al Bernard in July 1918 on the record company label Aeolian-Vocalion (cat. no. 12148). This is however not true, sinceColumbia’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.

Many of jazz’s most well-known artists in history have given renowned performances of the tune. The following is an incomplete list of the hundreds of musicians of renown who recorded “St. Louis Blues”, chosen as examples that are early in their careers and in the era of its greatest popularity.

“Swinging” of eighth notes on guitar

Sometimes, guitarists will “swing” an eighth note in this song. Swinging is generally done by making the downbeat of the eighth notes slightly longer than the upbeat. This typically gives the song a more “jazzy” and “fun” feel.

In popular culture


A number of short and feature films have been entitled St. Louis Blues; see: St. Louis Blues (film).

“St. Louis Blues” is played in the 1914 Charles Chaplin film, The Star Boarder as well as later being sung by Theresa Harris and played several times, including the opening credits, in the 1933 film Baby Face.[13] The song is also sung by Marcellite Garner as Minnie Mouse in the 1931 animated short film, Blue Rhythm.[14] It is played a number of times in the 1936 film, Banjo on my Knee, by Walter Brennan and is sung as a major production number by the Hall Johnson Choir as Barbara Stanwyck looks on.[15]

As an instrumental, the song is featured in Lewis Milestone‘s early talkie, Rain, in which it comes to symbolize the wanton ways of the main character Sadie Thompson, played by Joan Crawford.[16]


The St. Louis Blues NHL team is named after the W.C. Handy song, and their theme song is Miller’s version of the Handy composition.

The title of William Faulkner‘s short story “That Evening Sun” (published 1931) references the famous opening lyrics from “St. Louis Blues”.

“About Her” by Malcolm McLaren (from Kill Bill Vol. 2 Original Soundtrack) samples this song – in particular the line, “My man’s got a heart… like a rock cast in the sea”.

In Jean-Paul Sartre‘s existentialist play No Exit, Estelle talks about how she and Peter, one of her admirers, used to dance to “St. Louis Blues”.

A unique oddity is the relationship of the “St. Louis Blues” and the song “Memphis, Tennessee” by Chuck Berry. The composers of these two songs lived in the other city; W.C. Handy was from Memphis, and Chuck Berry was from St. Louis. Yet they both wrote the song most associated with the other’s hometown.

See also


  1. ^ Stanfield, Peter (2005). Body and Soul: Jazz and Blues in American Film, 1927-63. University of Illinois Press. p. 83. ISBN 0252029941. Retrieved 12 April 2005.
  2. ^[dead link]
  3. ^ Handy 1941, p. 119
  4. ^ American Memory from the Library of Congress – Browse by
  5. ^ Handy 1941, pp. 99–100
  6. ^ click on Rudi Valee version cover image, then advance pages
  7. ^ Handy 1941, p. 120
  8. ^ Handy 1941, p. 305
  9. ^ Handy 1941, pp. 99–100
  10. ^ Milton Brown and the Founding of Western Swing. Cary Ginell. 1994. University of Illinois Press. page 245, 246. ISBN 0-252-02041-3
  11. ^
  12. ^ “Pearls overview”
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^


External links

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