St. Louis Blues

William Christopher Handy, 1914

The recommended recording of this song features the music of W. C. Handy performed by Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. All three were leading African American artists of their day. What was life like for African Americans in these years? What opportunities were open to them? What restrictions did they face?

W. C. Handy, known as the "father of the blues," started his career in minstrelsy. Compare and contrast "St. Louis Blues" with earlier minstrel songs, such as "The Glendy Burke." What elements of minstrelsy are present in the later song? Are there minstrel stereotypes? How is "St. Louis Blues" different?

Compare "St. Louis Blues" to later blues classics, such as "Cross Roads Blues," "Call It Stormy Monday," and "I Feel Like Going Home." What elements of the blues did Handy help codify in songs such as St. Louis Blues?

Why do you think the blues caught on with white audiences? What aspects of the African American experience does the blues foreground that links it to white stereotypes of African Americans?


"St. Louis Blues" performed by Bessie Smith on Jazz: The Definitive Performances, © 1999. Available on iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube.

Bessie Smith (1894–1937) was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She began to sing at a young age and in 1923 signed a contract with Columbia Records. Soon she was among the highest-paid Black performers of her time with hits like "Downhearted Blues." By the end of the 1920s, however, her popularity had lessened, though she continued to perform and made new recordings at the start of the Swing Era. Her comeback and life were cut short when she died on September 26, 1937, from injuries sustained in an automobile accident outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi.

View the lyrics for "St. Louis Blues."

View the published score.

W.C. Handy
Photo of W.C. Handy.

William Christopher Handy (1873–1958), known as the "father of the blues," was born in Florence, Alabama. The son of a minister, Handy studied music in his youth, learning to play the organ, cornet, piano, guitar, and violin, and also studying vocal music. He began his career in minstrelsy and went on to become a leader of bands that toured the Mississippi Delta region. In 1903 he made his home in Memphis, Tennessee, where he continued his work as a band leader and started his own publishing company with Harry Pace.

Handy's first blues piece was "Memphis Blues," composed in 1909 for a Memphis mayoral candidate and published in 1912. Its popularity in Memphis inspired him to follow it with "St. Louis Blues" two years later. "St. Louis Blues" became a tremendous hit and established the blues as one of the nation's most popular genres of music.

The lyrics of "St. Louis Blues," which make extensive use of dialect, were influenced by Handy's participation in minstrel shows. The blues would come to be a genre defined by lyrics that typically describe the hard times that have befallen the singer, and "St. Louis Blues" is no exception. It tells the story of a woman who has been left by her lover. The form of each verse is what would become the standard "twelve-bar blues," which consists of three musical phrases (AAB) sung over a standardized chord progression of twelve musical measures. In the first verse, for example, the A phrase consists of the line "I hate to see de ev'nin' sun go down," which is then repeated in slightly varied form and followed by the B phrase, "cause my baby, he done lef dis town."

"St. Louis Blues" was so successful that Handy and Pace relocated their publishing business to New York City in 1918. That year also witnessed the first recording of "St. Louis Blues," although the most famous recording, featuring Bessie Smith singing and Louis Armstrong accompanying, was made in 1925.