Saint Louis Blues (song)

"St. Louis Blues"

Sheet music cover
Published 1914
Genre Blues
Writer(s) W. C. Handy
St. Louis Blues: 9 bars, tenor saxophone

"Saint Louis Blues" is a popular American song, composed by W. C. Handy in the blues style and published in September 1914. It remains a fundamental part of jazz musicians' repertoire. It was also one of the first blues songs to succeed as a pop song. It has been performed by numerous musicians in various styles, from Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith to Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Guy Lombardo, and the Boston Pops Orchestra. It has been called "the jazzman's Hamlet".[1]

The 1925 version sung by Bessie Smith, with Louis Armstrong on cornet, was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1993. The 1929 version by Louis Armstrong & His Orchestra (with Henry "Red" Allen) was inducted in 2008.


Handy said he had been inspired by a chance meeting with a woman on the streets of St. Louis distraught over her husband's absence, who lamented, "Ma man's got a heart like a rock cast in de sea", a key line of the song.[2][3] Details of the story vary. Handy's autobiography recounts his hearing the tune in St. Louis in 1892: "It had numerous one-line verses and they would sing it all night."[4]

The song was a massive and enduring success. Athe time of his death in 1958, Handy was earning royalties of upwards of US$25,000 annually for the song (equivalent to about $200,000 in 2016). The original published sheet music is available online from the United States Library of Congress in a searchable database of African-American music from Brown University.[5]


The form is unusual in that the verses are the now-familiar standard twelve-bar blues in common time with three lines of lyrics, the first two lines repeated, but it also has a 16-bar bridge written in the habanera rhythm, popularly called the "Spanish tinge" and characterized by Handy as tango.[6] The tango-like rhythm is notated as a dotted quarter note followed by an eighth note and two quarter notes, with no slurs or ties. It is played in the introduction and in the sixteen-measure bridge.[5]

Excerpt from "Saint Louis Blues", by W. C. Handy (1914). The left hand plays the habanera rhythm.

While blues often became simple and repetitive in form, "Saint Louis Blues" has multiple complementary and contrasting strains, similar to classic ragtime compositions. Handy said his objective in writing the song was "to combine ragtime syncopation with a real melody in the spiritual tradition."[7]

With traditional New Orleans and New Orleans–style bands, the tune is one of a handful that includes a set traditional solo. The clarinet solo, with a distinctive series of rising partials, was first recorded by Larry Shields with the Original Dixieland Jass Band in 1921. It is not found on any earlier recordings or published orchestrations of the tune. Shields is often credited with creating this solo, but claims have been made for other early New Orleans clarinetists, including Emile Barnes.


"Saint Louis Blues"
Single by Bessie Smith
Released 1925
Format 10-inch 78 rpm record
Recorded New York City, January 14, 1925
Genre Blues
Length 3:11
Label Columbia (14064-D)
Writer(s) W. C. Handy

Writing about the first time "Saint Louis Blues" was played (1914),[8] Handy noted that "The one-step and other dances had been done to the tempo of Memphis Blues... When St Louis Blues was written the tango was in vogue. I tricked the dancers by arranging a tango introduction, breaking abruptly into a low-down blues. My eyes swept the floor anxiously, then suddenly I saw lightning strike. The dancers seemed electrified. Something within them came suddenly to life. An instinct that wanted so much to live, to fling its arms to spread joy, took them by the heels."[6]

It has long been reputed that Ethel Waters was the first to sing "Saint Louis Blues" in public.[9] However, historians Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff state that the first singer to perform “St. Louis Blues” was Charles Anderson, a popular female impersonator in his day who included the song in his act as early as October of 1914. This backs the claim by Waters, who said she learned it from Anderson and featured it herself during a 1917 engagement in Baltimore.[10]

Researcher Guy Marco, in his Encyclopedia of Recorded Sound in the United States, stated that the first audio recording of "Saint Louis Blues" was by Al Bernard in July 1918 for the Aeolian Company's Vocalion label (catalogue number 12148). However, Columbia's house band, directed by Charles A. Prince, had already recorded a released instrumental version in December 1915 (Columbia A5772). Bernard's version may have been the first US issue to include the lyrics, but Ciro's Club Coon Orchestra, a group of black American artists appearing in Britain, had already recorded a version including the lyrics in September 1917 (UK Columbia 699).

Since the 1910s, "Saint Louis Blues" has been popular not only as a song but also as an instrumental tune.

Many of the best-known jazz artists have performed "Saint Louis Blues". The following is an incomplete list of the hundreds of renowned musicians who have recorded it.

This list of songs or music-related items is incomplete; you can help by expanding it.


Interpretation by Bessie Smith, 1929

Several short and feature films are entitled St. Louis Blues. The first, in 1929, featured Bessie Smith.

"Saint Louis Blues" is played in the 1914 Charlie Chaplin film The Star Boarder.

It was sung by Theresa Harris and is played several times, including during the opening credits, in the 1933 film Baby Face.[21]

It was sung by Marcellite Garner as the voice of Minnie Mouse in the 1931 animated short film Blue Rhythm.[22]

It is played a number of times in the 1936 film Banjo on My Knee by Walter Brennan and is sung as a major production number by the Hall Johnson Choir as Barbara Stanwyck looks on.[23]

As an instrumental, it is featured in Lewis Milestone's early talkie Rain, in which it comes to symbolize the wanton ways of the main character, Sadie Thompson, played by Joan Crawford.[24]


The St. Louis Blues NHL team is named after the song, and their theme song is Miller's version of Handy's composition.

The title of William Faulkner's short story "That Evening Sun", published in 1931, refers to the famous opening lyrics of the song.

"About Her" by Malcolm McLaren (from Kill Bill Vol. 2 Original Soundtrack) samples the song, in particular the lyric "My man's got a heart... like a rock cast in the sea".

In Jean-Paul Sartre's existentialist play No Exit, Estelle talks about how she and Peter, one of her admirers, used to dance to "Saint Louis Blues".

A unique oddity is the relationship of the "Saint Louis Blues" and the song "Memphis, Tennessee" by Chuck Berry. W.C. Handy was from Florence, Alabama, but moved to Memphis in 1909 at the age of 36, and Chuck Berry was from St. Louis, each writing about the other's town.

Margot Bingham covers the song in season 4 of Boardwalk Empire.

See also


  1. Stanfield, Peter (2005). Body and Soul: Jazz and Blues in American Film, 1927–63. University of Illinois Press. p. 83. ISBN 0-252-02994-1. Retrieved 12 April 2005.
  2. Archived April 8, 2004, at the Wayback Machine.
  3. Handy 1941, p. 119
  4. Handy 1941, p. 147.
  5. 1 2 "American Memory from the Library of Congress – List All Collections". Retrieved 2015-12-30.
  6. 1 2 Handy 1941, pp. 99–100
  7. Handy 1941, p. 120
  8. Handy 1941, p. 305
  9. Britannica, Encyclopedia (October 28, 2016). "Ethel Waters: Sweet Mama Stringbean". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved October 28, 2016.
  10. Freeland, David (July 1, 2009). "Behind the Song St Louis Blues". American Songwriter. Retrieved October 28, 2016.
  11. Russell, Tony (1997). The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Dubai: Carlton Books. p. 12. ISBN 1-85868-255-X.
  12. Ginell, Cary (1994). Milton Brown and the Founding of Western Swing. University of Illinois Press. pp. 245, 246. ISBN 0-252-02041-3.
  13. "Clarence Williams & the Blues Singers Vol 2 1927–1932". Retrieved 2014-09-13.
  14. "Katherine Henderson Songs". Allmusic. Retrieved 2014-09-13.
  15. "Walter Brennan (1894–1974)". Retrieved 2015-07-03.
  16. "Theresa Harris (I) (1906–1985)". Retrieved 2015-07-03.
  17. "Banjo on My Knee (1936): Soundtracks". Retrieved 2015-07-03.
  18. "Laurie Annie: Encyclopedia of Popular Music Oxford Reference". 2012-02-17. Retrieved 2013-03-12.
  19. "Pearls overview".
  20. Daughter Maitland - St. Louis Blues (Boardwalk Empire)
  21. "Baby Face (1933): Soundtracks". Retrieved 2015-07-03.
  22. "Blue Rhythm (1931): Soundtracks". Retrieved 2015-07-03.
  23. "Banjo on My Knee (1936): Soundtracks". Retrieved 2015-07-03.
  24. "Rain (1932): Soundtracks". Retrieved 2015-07-03.


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