Saint Louis Blues (song)

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"The Saint Louis Blues" (or "St. Louis Blues") is a popular American song composed by W. C. Handy in the blues style and published in September 1914. It was one of the first blues songs to succeed as a pop song and remains a fundamental part of jazz musicians' repertoire. Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Bing Crosby, Bessie Smith, Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Guy Lombardo, Peanuts Hucko, and the Boston Pops Orchestra (under the directions of both Arthur Fiedler and Keith Lockhart) are among the artists who have recorded it. The song has been called "the jazzman's Hamlet".[3] Composer William Grant Still arranged a version of the song in 1916 while working with Handy.[4][5]: 310 

"The Saint Louis Blues[1]"
St. Louis Blues cover.jpg
Sheet music cover
Single by Bessie Smith with Louis Armstrong, cornet
B-side"Cold in Hand Blues"
PublishedSeptember 11, 1914 (1914-09-11)
Pace & Handy Music Co. Memphis, Tenn.[1]
ReleasedApril 10, 1925 (1925-04-10)
RecordedJanuary 14, 1925 (1925-01-14)[2]
LabelColumbia 14064D
Songwriter(s)W. C. Handy

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 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, Missouri, 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.[6][7] 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."[8]

The song was a massive and enduring success. 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.[9][10]


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, which Jelly Roll Morton called the "Spanish tinge" and characterized by Handy as tango.[11] 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.[citation needed]


While blues often became simple and repetitive in form, "Saint Louis Blues" has multiple complementary and contrasting strains, similar to classic ragtime compositions.[7] Handy said his objective in writing the song was "to combine ragtime syncopation with a real melody in the spiritual tradition."[12] T-Bone Walker commented about the song, "You can't dress up the blues ... I'm not saying that 'Saint Louis Blues' isn't fine music you understand. But it just isn't blues".[13]


Writing about the first time "Saint Louis Blues" was played (1914),[14] 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.[11]

Singer and actress Ethel Waters was the first woman to sing "Saint Louis Blues" in public.[15] She said she learned it from Charles Anderson and featured it herself during a 1917 engagement in Baltimore.[15][16]

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 Vocalion Records. However, the house band at Columbia Records, directed by Charles A. Prince, released an instrumental version in December 1915.

The film St. Louis Blues, from 1929, featured Bessie Smith singing the song.[17]

Other recorded versionsEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Library of Congress. Copyright Office. (1914). Catalog of Copyright Entries, 1914 Musical Compositions Last Half of 1914 New Series Vol 9 Part 2. United States Copyright Office. U.S. Govt. Print. Off.
  2. ^ a b Russell, Tony (1997). The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Dubai: Carlton Books. p. 12. ISBN 1-85868-255-X.
  3. ^ Stanfield, Peter (2005). Body and Soul: Jazz and Blues in American Film, 1927–63. University of Illinois Press. pp. 83–. ISBN 978-0-252-02994-3. Retrieved 12 April 2005.
  4. ^ Staff (2021). "Happy birthday, William Grant Still". Celeste Headlee. Retrieved February 23, 2021.
  5. ^ Smith, Catherine Parson (2000). William Grant Still: A Study in Contradictions. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. p. 310.
  6. ^ Tom Morgan, "St. Louis Blues: An American Classic", Bluesnet, April 8, 2004. Retrieved from May 28, 2018.
  7. ^ a b Handy 1941, p. 119
  8. ^ Handy 1941, p. 147
  9. ^ "American Memory from the Library of Congress – List All Collections". Retrieved December 30, 2015.
  10. ^ Handy, W. C. (William Christopher), "The 'St. Louis blues'" (1918). African American Sheet Music. Brown Digital Repository. Brown University Library. Retrieved May 28, 2018.
  11. ^ a b Handy 1941, pp. 99–100
  12. ^ Handy 1941, p. 120
  13. ^ Oakley, Giles (1997). The Devil's Music. Da Capo Press. p. 42–43. ISBN 978-0-306-80743-5.
  14. ^ Handy 1941, p. 305
  15. ^ a b Britannica, Encyclopedia (May 31, 2017). "Ethel Waters: American Singer and Actress". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved May 28, 2018.
  16. ^ Freeland, David (July 1, 2009). "Behind the Song: "St. Louis Blues"". American Songwriter. Retrieved October 28, 2016.(subscription required)
  17. ^ Albertson, Chris (2003). Bessie (revised ed.). Yale University Press. pp. 193–194. ISBN 9780300107562.
  18. ^ a b c d e f g h Whitburn, Joel (1986). Pop Memories: 1890–1954. p. 584. ISBN 9780898200836.
  19. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Gioia, Ted (2012). The Jazz Standards. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 356–357. ISBN 978-0-19-993739-4.
  20. ^ Ginell, Cary (1994). Milton Brown and the Founding of Western Swing. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press. pp. 245–246. ISBN 0-252-02041-3.
  21. ^ Lankford Jr., Ronnie D. "Have Trumpet, Will Excite!". AllMusic. Retrieved 17 May 2018.
  22. ^ Ginell, Richard S. "Artistry". AllMusic. Retrieved 17 May 2018.
  23. ^ DeLay, Tom (January 1985). "For the Records". Theatre Organ. 27 (1): 19. ISSN 0040-5531.

Handy, W.C. (1941). Bontemps, Arna Wendell (ed.). Father of the Blues: An Autobiography. New York City: Macmillan..

External linksEdit