After expressing my life-long admiration for Louis 'Satchmo' Armstrong -- and quoting several American writers praising his performance of 'West End Blues' -- in my column 'Musicscan' in THE HINDU, I couldn't resist the temptation to follow it up immediately with an article on the fascinating jazz classic 'Saint Louis Blues' :-
19 Dec. 2008Musicscan
Talking a couple of weeks ago about the legendary jazz singer and hornblower Louis Armstrong playing West End Blues, one of the most famous examples of early-20th-century jazz, I had quoted some rave reviews from certain American sources, and had given a useful guideline for obtaining an authentic impression of that fabulous piece of music (Musicscan, November 28) :
“If you wish to understand the true significance of those glowing words of adoration and critical acclaim,” I had said, “all you have to do is to look online for ‘West End Blues’ (easily accessible on YouTube) and play the three-minute 78-rpm gramophone plate of OKeh Records made 80 years ago, which . . . features the finest sample of Louis Armstrong’s music. And if you do take the trouble of getting that far, surely you will not be able to resist hearing many other recordings of the maestro, all of which invariably contain the very essence of what I call classical jazz!”
I hope some of you did take my suggestion seriously, or will do so now. In which case, you couldn’t have missed (or can’t miss) hearing another jazz masterpiece called St. Louis Blues, which is in fact even more famous than West End Blues.
It was one of the most striking tunes and songs I used to hear repeatedly on the short-wave radio broadcasts of the Voice of America in the 1960s ; and 50 years later, I can still hear it occasionally without getting bored. It was composed almost 100 years ago by the pioneer jazz musician W.C. Handy (known as ‘Father of the Blues’), but still remains a great favourite among jazz-lovers all over the world.. .
River of tradition
How exactly do you define or describe ‘the blues’? John Edward Hasse, jazz musician and curator for American music in the Smithsonian Institution, puts it in a nutshell as follows : “The blues may have begun when a 19th-century African-American thought up the idea of accompanying a field holler (an extemporaneous solo cry used in cotton-picking and other work settings) — probably at first with a one-chord accompaniment. In this scenario, elaborations developed over time, and eventually the blues’ three-chord pattern coalesced . . .
“While many people think the blues have to be woeful or complaining, in fact many blues songs are celebratory. But either way, they are packed with emotion and spirituality.
When a jazz musician really plays the blues, he or she is dipping into a deep river of tradition that speaks of struggle, community, affirmation and transcendence over adversity. The blues brings relief to the performer and uplifts the audience.” (Jazz - The First Century, HarperCollins, New York, 2000).
Spirit of St. Louis
St. Louis Blues is one of the most recorded songs in the whole history of American music, more than a hundred versions being recorded in the early gramophone era of the 1920s and ’30s. It has also figured in dozens of American movies. It has been arranged for various instrumental jazz ensembles, and sometimes even for large orchestras, and has been performed by many eminent jazz musicians, including Louis Armstrong (trumpet and vocal), Duke Ellington (piano), Benny Goodman (clarionet), Dave Brubeck (piano), Bessie Smith and Velma Middleton (vocal). It has been rendered in varying tempos and with modified lyrics, but the most popular versions invariably retain or echo the original spirit and flavour of the song.
The lyrics of classical jazz were usually very ordinary, and were often quite trivial ; but what lifted the songs sky-high were the poignant tunes and the intensity of the sentiments expressed. The case of St. Louis Blues was no exception, as you can see and hear for yourself if you glance at the following lines as you listen to the music online or on records (spelling and punctuation mine):
I hate to see dat evenin’ sun go down -- I hate to see dat evenin’ sun go down -- 'Coz ma baby he done lef’ diz town.
If I’m feelin’ tomorrow, juss like I feel today -- If I’m feelin’ tomorrow, like I feel today -- I’ll pack my trunk an’ make my get-away!
Sain’ Loui’ woman, wid’ all her di’mond rings -- Stole dat man o’ mine, by her apron strings -- If it wazn’t for powder, an’ her store-bought hair -- Dat man dat I love wudn’t ’ave gone nowhere! -- Nowhere!
I’ve got de Sain’ Loui’ blooz, just as blue az I can be -- Lor’, dat man’s got a heart like a rock cast in de sea -- Or else he wudn’t ’ave gone so far from me!
Gee, I love dat man like a schoolboy lov’z his pie -- Juss like an ol’ Kentucky col’nel lov’z his rock an’ rye -- I guess I’ll love dat man until de day I die!