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Memphis and St.Louis Blues - Two Handy hits that changed music forever

W.C. Handy, composer of Memphis and St.Louis Blues
W.C. Handy, composer of Memphis and St.Louis Blues

The composer W.C. Handy (1873–1958) is sometimes described as ‘The Father of Blues’, one of the most important musical styles of the the twentieth century. Of the many pieces that earned him this title, two stand out, his Memphis Blues and St. Louis Blues.

Genesis in Memphis

Originating in African American work songs and spirituals, the Blues style, including its most important form, the 12-bar blues existed in the oral tradition before these two works. Handy, the son of former slaves, grew up within this tradition, eventually becoming a fine cornet player and band leader. After moving to Memphis around the turn of the century he also began to compose.

Doubtful authorship?

Memphis Blues was self-published by Handy in 1912. The piece was originally subtitled ‘Mr. Crump’, since it was believed to be based on a song written for the campaign of the mayoral candidate of Memphis, Tennessee: Edward Crump.

Some have claimed that ‘Mr. Crump’ was actually written by Handy’s clarinetist or, indeed, that the song was based upon a piece that he heard in Cleveland, Mississippi in 1903. This debate reflects the spirit of his time - musicians played and improvised together, swapping and adapting ideas. It seems certain, however, that Handy at least refined the work, bring it to a form where it was ready for publication.

12-bar blues

The work is heavily influenced by the rhythms of ragtime - indeed Handy described it as a ‘Ragtime Blues.’ Its significance, however, lies in the chorus, which contains a twice stated 12 bar blues pattern -the first time that such a form had been written down and published.

Sold for a song

In 1912, in debt to his printer, Handy sold the rights to the piece for just $50, a decision he came to regret. The new owner, Theron Bennett, had lyrics added to the work. After a shaky start, by 1914, with recordings released by Victor Military Band and Columbia’s Prince’s Band, the song began to achieve great success. This made Handy famous but not rich - he later remarked that he had been ‘robbed’.

Victor Military Band Recording of 'Memphis Blues', 1914

St. Louis Blues

If the Memphis Blues is important for being the first written down blues, St. Louis Blues is the work that popularised the style. The piece was written and published by Handy in 1914. It may have had a similar genesis to the Memphis Blues, with Handy basing it on a tune that he had heard some twenty years earlier in St. Louis. Also, like his Memphis Blues, the chorus of the song is a 12 bar blues.

Phenomenal Success

The success of the St. Louis Blues was phenomenal. Handy himself recorded several versions, the best of which was in 1922. Other blues artists quickly followed. Fats Waller played it on a a Victor Studio organ in his first solo recording in 1925 and a seminal version by Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong was recorded in the same year:

Armstrong went on to make a number of other versions of the piece and recordings quickly followed by a constellation of artists, including Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway, Bing Crosby, Bessie Smith, Eartha Kitt, Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Guy Lombardo and Peanuts Hucko. Today the song is considered so foundational, it has been referred to as ‘the jazzman’s Hamlet.’

Handy went on to write a number of other important pieces, including ‘Loveless Love’, ’Aunt Hagar’s Blues’, Beale Street Blues and Yellow Dog Blues, cementing his place as one of the most important musicians of the twentieth century. He will always, however, be most associated with St. Louis Blues.

W.C.Handy aged 75 playing St. Louis Blues

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