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St. Louis Blues

St. Louis Blues


by Bessie Smith

St. Louis Blues Introduction

The Empress of the Blues passed before her time—Bessie Smith died in a car crash in 1937, probably just short of age forty (no one knew the exact year of her birth). But while she was around, she had the chance to make some of the most influential recordings in the history of blues music. Smith's 1925 take on W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues" with Louis Armstrong is widely considered the most important of all her recordings as well as the most important recorded version of that ever-popular tune.

"St. Louis Blues" was not just another blues song. It was an early example of the popular blues, a melding of traditional blues (an almost exclusively black genre) with a writing and recording style geared toward cross-racial audiences. But while composer W.C. Handy made a permanent name for himself writing and selling crossover material consciously engineered to help white people get comfortable with black music, Smith's decision to make a more poppy form of the blues might have spelled her professional demise.

About the Song

ArtistBessie Smith Musician(s)Bessie Smith (vocals), Louis Armstrong (cornet), Fred Longshaw (harmonium)
Album"St. Louis Blues" (single)
Writer(s)W.C. Handy
Producer(s)Frank Walker
Learn to play: Sheet Music
Buy this song: Amazon iTunes
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Shmoop Connections

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It was the 1920s, and popular music was thriving alongside an overall economic boom. For the first time, recorded music started to be a real cash cow for a lucky and talented few. Bessie Smith, called the Empress of the Blues for her rich, raw, striking voice and versatile performance style, was among those able to make a decent buck in the recording industry, selling literally millions of records in the mid-1920s.

"St. Louis Blues" is now a classic from that era, and classic status is just what the song's composer, W.C. Handy, was aiming for. Handy was a self-made ambassador who worked to bring black music into white culture across Jim Crow lines, and he wrote "St. Louis Blues" as a self-conscious imitation of improvised country blues he'd heard down south. But was this polished-up recording studio stuff really the blues? What happened to blues music as it became a mainstream form? Could people who didn't grow up with the blues—white or otherwise—really get the blues? All of that was up for debate, and still is. Just keep reading to join the conversation.

On the Charts

"St. Louis Blues" came out before Billboard charts as we know them, but it is certain that Bessie Smith was one of the biggest-selling musicians of the 1920s.

Bessie Smith's version of "St. Louis Blues" with Louis Armstrong was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1993.

Bessie Smith was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989 in the Early Influence category.

"St. Louis Blues" is one of the most widely covered blues songs in history.

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