A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
Track #48 on Thommy Ford’s Playlist
Bessie Smith’s 1925 recording of “St. Louis Blues,” which features Louis Armstrong’s trumpet and Fred Longshaw’s pump organ, is one of the landmark moments in American music. Since it was first published in 1914, W.C. Handy’s song had proven very popular. It was already, in a sense, a standard. But this particularly lonesome small group performance solidified its greatness.
The song Smith recorded is a pretty common edit of the full lyrics. Gone are Handy’s lines about gypsy women and a trip to Cairo, IL. This version keeps only the “Spanish tinge” bridge about a St. Louis woman who steals her man and the three darkest verses, some of the most haunting lyrics in blues. There’s the morbid sunset of “I hate to see that evenin’ sun go down/Makes me think I’m on my last go round.” Then you get the existential dread of the repeated “Feelin’ tomorrow like I feel today.” It’s all rounded out with the wonderful imagery of “my man’s got a heart like a rock tossed in the sea.”
If you play it alongside some other early versions of the song, like Marion Harris’ 1920 recording, then Smith, Armstrong, and Longshaw seem like a revelation. Smith’s vocal is so confidant and strong, and the musicianship surrounding it so impeccable, there’s really no comparison. I think it helps that it’s a much more intimate arrangement too. Smith sings in the same register and at the same volume as Longshaw’s organ and together they make a beautiful kind of droning, wailing sound that Armstrong’s trumpet cuts right through.
Everyone before Bessie Smith seems to have thought of this as a bluesy rag just like any other, and it’s supposedly (along with Handy’s “Memphis Blues”) one of the pieces that helped popularize the foxtrot, but Smith makes it clear that this is not just for dancing. It’s serious music with a seriously powerful lyric.
Review by Matthew