November 16, 2009
“St. Louis Blues” may be “the jazzman’s Hamlet,” as one critic has it, but its author, W.C. HANDY (1873-1955) might be compared more fairly to Aeschylus than to Shakespeare. Just as the Greek’s works served to codify the conventions of tragic drama, the very genera “blues” derives from Handy’s early compositions, as do its characteristic 12-bar structure and basic harmonic skeleton. All these features were present in the black vernacular music the Alabama pastor’s son heard as an itinerant cornetist and bandleader (and pipefitter and music teacher) in the 1890s and 1900s, but Handy was among the first to notate them, approximating the slurred pitches (“blue notes”) of rural singers as flatted thirds and seventh, blurring major and minor and turning folk expression into something reproducible, teachable, and endlessly interpretable. Though predated by 1912’s “Memphis Blues,” based by Handy on his campaign song for Tennessee politician Boss Crump, it’s “St. Louis Blues,” published two years later, that has ploughed the deepest furrow into 20th-century culture, from its earliest vaudeville performances by black female impersonator Charles Anderson, through its use as a metonym for Jean Harlow’s jazz-baby tawdriness in Red-Headed Woman — to say nothing of its hundreds of recorded performances, from Bessie Smith’s with Louis Armstrong to Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys’.
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