CRAVEN’S NOTES: 5 ways ‘The St. Louis Blues’ changed everything
There are many important songs in the history of American popular music, but W.C. Handy’s “The St. Louis Blues” has to be near the pinnacle of the pantheon. Here are five reasons why “The St. Louis Blues” changed America forever:
1. It made the blues respectable. Handy wasn’t the first musician to publish blues songs, but he’s known today as “the Father of the Blues” because his hits transformed what had been an informal, regional, ethnically-specific genre into the basis for all of the American pop music which would follow over the next century.
Before the 1914 publication of “The St. Louis Blues,” the blues was considered a novelty. But within a decade, the blues had transformed from being an exotic amusement to the backbone of almost all future American musical invention. It can be argued that without “The St. Louis Blues,” there would be no rock n’ roll, no soul music, no hip-hop. And genres like jazz, cabaret and even gospel would be pallid, bloodless versions of what we have come to expect.
2. It changed the way musicians did business. “The St. Louis Blues” came two years after Handy had sold the rights to his first hit, “The Memphis Blues,” to publisher Theron Bennett for $100, and then watched in dismay as the song became a huge moneymaker. As a result, Handy determined to never sell his copyrights again. And that proved to be a wise choice — by the time he passed away in 1958, Handy was still making $25,000 a year from “The St. Louis Blues” royalties. (In 1958, $25k had the buying power of more than $200,000 today.) Handy turned his songs into a fortune by creating his own publishing company, and became a model for subsequent generations of songwriters and performers.
3. It cemented stardom for Bessie Smith. Whereas white singer Marion Harris was the first to score a hit with “The St. Louis Blues,” the version recorded by Bessie Smith in 1925 is widely considered to be the definitive interpretation of the song. By then, Smith was already on the music industry’s radar thanks to best-selling “race records,” but her version of “The St. Louis Blues” (replete with subtly beautiful cornet accompaniment by Louis Armstrong) caused her star to skyrocket. Four years later, Smith appeared in her only film: “The St. Louis Blues,” in which she sang the song that gave the film its title and provided her the mantle of “Queen of the Blues.”
4. It expanded the blues’ musical palette. One reason ”The St. Louis Blues” turned heads in 1914 was that Handy combined the so-called 12-bar blues with a tango. In both his personal dealings and his work as a musician, Handy was a bridge-builder, and by merging the blues with a then-popular dance rhythm, he drafted the blueprint for much of the experimentation which would turn American music into the world’s most creative hotbed for the next century.
5. It forever changed the role of African-Americans in popular culture. In treating the African-American experience respectfully and sympathetically, “The St. Louis Blues” set a standard that could not be rolled back thereafter. Permanently vanquished were the “coon songs” of yore. Blacks were finally treated as people, not mascots, and some historians see “The St. Louis Blues” as a bellwether moment, the butterfly-wing flutter which would grow into the juggernaut of the Civil Rights movement a half-century later.
Craven Lovelace is the producer of the Notes Blog & Podcast at http://cravenlovelace.com/notesblog and also writes about popular culture at the Cravenomena blog at http://cravenlovelace.com/cravenblog/. You can also find him on Facebook.
Notes is made possible by Tina Harbin of Real Estate West, the premier resource for all real estate information and services on the Western Slope.
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