Study Guide

St. Louis Blues

St. Louis Blues Introduction

In a Nutshell

The Empress of the Blues passed before her time: Bessie Smith died in a car crash in 1937, probably just short of age 40 (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" wasn't 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

ArtistSmith, Bessie
Year1925
LabelColumbia
Writer(s)W.C. Handy
Producer(s)Frank Walker
Musician(s)Bessie Smith (vocals), Louis Armstrong (cornet), Fred Longshaw (harmonium)
Learn to playSheet Music
AlbumSt. Louis Blues (Single)

Music Video

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Influences on Smith, Bessie

Ma Rainey
Blind Lemon Jefferson

Influenced by Smith, Bessie

Billie Holiday
Ella Fitzgerald
Dinah Washington
Sarah Vaughan
Aretha Franklin
Mahalia Jackson
Janis Joplin

St. Louis Blues Resources

Books

Studs Terkel, Giants of Jazz (1957, 1975)
During radio personality Studs Terkel's long career, he had opportunities to meet and befriend many of the greatest jazz and blues musicians of the 20th century; Bessie Smith was before his time, but he tells a colorful version of her story. The book also covers Joe Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Bix, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Woody Herman, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.

Will Friedwald, Stardust Melodies: A Biography of Twelve of America's Most Popular Songs (2002)
This wonderfully detailed "biography" tells the story of twelve popular songs from the earlier parts of the 20th century, from the music to the business and politics behind the tunes. It is highly recommended especially for those with an interest in jazz and blues.

Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (1998)
A very interesting, pretty academic breakdown of the music of these three influential women. If you're looking for basic biography of each individual, don't start here—but if you are interested in how they all fit together, and how their music might actually be feminist, this is definitely the book for you.

W.C. Handy, Father of the Blues, An Autobiography (1969)
W.C. Handy openly acknowledges that he learned the blues from the street, and did not grow up with the music. He also openly touts himself as the father of the blues. A bit of contradiction there, perhaps, but this is certainly a good read.

Francis Davis, The History of the Blues: The Roots, the Music, the People (1995)
This book makes for a nice overview of blues history, although it sometimes avoids delving into the more complicated race and gender questions.

Albums

Bessie Smith: The Essential Bessie Smith (1997)
A compilation of great Bessie Smith tracks beginning in 1923 and spanning her recording career. The collection includes "St. Louis Blues" and most of the other Bessie fundamentals.

Louis Armstrong: Mostly Blues (2003)
This collection features Bessie Smith and King Oliver on some of Louis' greatest tracks.

Images

Bessie Smith in flapper gear
Bessie Smith was a star in the 1920s, which meant fabulous fashion.

Bessie Smith singing
According to most, Bessie Smith was an impeccable, versatile performer.

W.C. Handy
The Russell Simmons of the blues, his legacy was less for his music and more for his marketing skills.

Louis Armstrong
His trumpet playing is iconic in American popular music, and his career overlapped very beneficially with both Smith's and Handy's work.

Movies & TV

St. Louis Blues (1958)
This biopic features Nat King Cole as composer W.C. Handy and also includes performances by Ella Fitzgerald and Mahalia Jackson. Not to be confused with the short film Smith performed in back in 1929.

Websites

Behind the Song: "St Louis Blues"
American Songwriter brings us a brief bio of the St. Louis blues.

"St. Louis Blues" on NPR
National Public Radio brings us a short audio retrospective on the definitive recording by Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong.

W.C. Handy Biography
A brief biography from the University of North Alabama.

Video & Audio

Clip from St. Louis Blues (1929)
The 1929 film is the only known film recording of Bessie Smith—which is rather unfortunate, since the short film hardly does her singing justice and was mainly a way to make some fast cash.

Bessie Smith: "St. Louis Blues" (1925)
The original track as recorded by Smith and Armstrong in the studio with Frank Walker.

Louis Armstrong: "St. Louis Blues" (1954)
This is an exciting and brilliant rendition from Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy, featuring Velma Middleton.