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It's loungy, jazzy, and only a little bit sad. Louis Armstrong's trumpet sings plaintively, as if it's a voice in a duet with Bessie Smith's raspy beauty. A goofy harmonium gently taps out chords in a church-style dirge behind them both. In four brief strains, "St. Louis Blues" comes and goes as easy as elevator music. It's hardly the hard, heart-breaking stuff we associate with the old-time blues.
And yet, in form and in content, "St. Louis Blues" is definitely blues. It's longer than a traditional blues—the most basic blues are 12-bar progressions, which might be repeated several times. This one is written in 52 total measures, with the first two verses repeating in basic 12-bar form. The third verse is in 16 bars coupled with a subtle shift to a minor key and a tango beat, and the fourth concludes in 12 bars that differ only slightly from the first two. Altogether, the song follows an AABC form, with the tango-like B section serving as a bridge to the somewhat cheery conclusion. It's admittedly an unusual progression for a blues song taken altogether. Within each verse, however, the structure of the blues is present: the first two lines are repeated, followed by a conclusively sad and drifting third line, and the A and C sections also follow the bluesy 12-bar structure starting and ending on the major tonic chord after ambling through a I-IV-V chord progression sprinkled with blues scales. And Smith hits the classic blue notes (the notes in blues where the singer is intentionally flat to create a blue feeling) from the very first line, where "sun" is written as a B flat and sung with a falling sadness Bessie had total mastery over.
It may seem a little eclectic next to the simplicity of 12-bar blues, but the little extravagances of "St. Louis Blues" were part of the appeal. It's a compact, lovely little blues, maybe a little upbeat for purists, but perfect for the jazz-blues crossover and pop/easy listening crowds. W.C. Handy got a little flashy, but the effect ultimately stayed simple: "Handy threw anything he could think of—every aspect of African-American vernacular music—into 'The St. Louis Blues.' As we've seen, it is a genuine blues, using blues form, blues harmony, and blue notes," writes Friedwald (Stardust Melodies: A Biography of Twelve of America's Most Popular Songs, 49).
The only problem, according to Friedwald—and we might have to agree with him here—is in the instrumentation on the Smith and Armstrong collaboration. He writes: "One has to question the decision (presumably by producer Frank Walker) to back this duo with a Martian-sounding, organ-like keyboard known as the harmonium" (66). To be fair, they probably didn't know about Martians back then.
Before the 1910s, blues songs were rarely if ever written down. But when W.C. Handy hit the popular music market with the intention of making the blues into a popular and accessible form, writing things down was a part of his game plan—after all, you can't sell a song you don't copyright. He wrote "St. Louis Blues" with the explicit desire of creating a popular blues song, something that could be sung by blacks and whites alike. His songwriting, then, was an attempt at reconstructing a form he'd mainly heard on the streets and in southern juke joints. Capturing the traditional speech and stereotypical themes of the blues genre was essential. So, he wrote a song about a man leaving a woman, a woman feelin' down, and, well, that's about it.
When you think about it, something about W.C. Handy's appropriation of blues styles seems sort of put-on, doesn't it? This second-hand nature of the songwriting actually raises much larger questions about race, identity, and songwriting.
When Handy first wrote the words to "St. Louis Blues," he wrote the word "I" as "ah" and the word "the" as "de." What's that all about? Here's our answer: "Handy knew he would have to write his own words for 'The St. Louis Blues' to reflect more directly the colloquial speech of black folk music," wrote Friedwald. "He is to be forgiven for the distinctly minstrel-show tone of the lyric, the 'Ah' for 'I,' the 'de' for 'the,' as this was the only way he could get the white singers he wanted to even attempt singing with a black feeling" (Stardust Melodies: A Biography of Twelve of America's Most Popular Songs, 48). But is he to be forgiven? Or was he actually encouraging others to caricature black speech when singing the blues?
Transcribing black dialects into writing created for interracial audiences is a technique that countless black writers have used in the decades since. But the obvious difference in music writing (as opposed to books or poetry) is that the songs are written for a singer to sing, the words formed to go into the mouths of strangers. Writing a song is closer in some ways to writing a character's lines in a play. That character is embodied by whoever goes on to sing the song. The result in the case of blues songs can be an uncomfortable sense that white singers are imitating a stereotypically black style. W.C. Handy, in his attempts to popularize the blues with wide audiences, seems to be encouraging this sort of imitation.
So, was this a chump move, or what? Well, as usual, it's complicated. Similar debates about racial identity and music should be pretty familiar to followers of rap, a traditionally black genre where it's easy to find a big dose of racial awkwardness alongside some heartwarming stories of racial harmony and collaboration. A lot of the awkwardness we're referring to comes from the phenomenon of young white people basically performing rap as an offensive stereotype of blackness—imitating the voices and styles of black rappers for the sake of a laugh or to get attention or make money. The picture gets more complicated when more self-aware players get into the picture (Eminem being the classic example)—and certainly there are white rappers who respect the genre and its history. Also, some hip-hop fans have certainly taken offense when African Americans appropriate others' experiences in order to create an image—for example, rappers who pretend to have had prison sentences or who pretend to be poor have often been derided for not "keeping it real."
If any of this sounds familiar, now imagine the 1920s blues scene as the 1990s hip-hop scene: a time when the genre's growing popularity created a series of identity crises, and some people got rich quick while others got left in the dust. The way things shook down wasn't exactly fair in either scenario, and with tense racial politics swirling at the center of both time periods, nothing—not even a song—offers simple answers.
So how do we interpret W.C. Handy's attempt to reconstruct the lyrical feel of black-composed blues songs to make them imitable by white voices (and thus, popular with white audiences)? Handy himself was African American, but he doesn't pretend to have grown up with sounds of the blues. He doesn't deny that he liked and respected blues music only after he realized its potential as a moneymaker. But once he did realize its potential, he recycled blues concepts, musical and lyrical, with an expert's hand. Some questioned whether his music was really the blues, but it entered the canon of American blues anyway. History, rather than the critics of the moment, took over the story.
Perhaps one of the biggest lessons in "St. Louis Blues" is actually a lesson in postmodernism. Yep, we said it. The P-word, postmodernism, is a line of philosophical thought that developed in the later 20th century that denies any absolute truth or fundamental identity, especially when it comes to artistic representations of people, places or things. In a post-modernist world, objects are always representations, and how we interpret them is as important as what they are in themselves. If you're confused, think art galleries populated by nothing but kitchen chairs and that sort of confounding stuff—and then think, is a chair ever just a chair? What is a chair?
Is the blues ever just the blues? "St. Louis Blues," the song and its story, highlights how the identity of "the blues" is not a single trajectory easily defined by race, class and experience. To the extent that we can define "the blues," it is a definition that is based on a set of assumptions that can shift and change. When W.C. Handy wrote "St. Louis Blues," he was counting on those assumptions to make the song into something that seemed to represent black culture but could still be sung by white people. It is much easier today to look back at that as a representation rather than as a piece of writing that we can narrowly define as either "real blues" or "not real blues." So, although this does not resolve the questions of racial identity and whether or not white people should or could sing the blues, it seems to make sense to view "St. Louis Blues" more as a painting, one man's picture of the blues presented to the world. It is a picture we are lucky to have, and a picture we can enjoy listening to. Is it a fair, accurate picture? We may never know, and call us slackers, but we're willing to argue that it's all relative.