W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” is one of the most enduring and recognizable pieces of American music. It has been immortalized by some of the world’s greatest performers, from Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong to Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder. A short film of Bessie Smith’s rendition of the song (the only available footage of the legendary vocalist performing) is also one of the National Blues Museum’s most exciting attractions—a must-see for music lovers visiting St. Louis. St. Louis Blues has been performed in prestigious, celebratory settings such as in this 1956 clip of Louis Armstrong, Edmond Hall, and the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein:
The song’s lasting impact on our culture has led many to ask questions about its content and background, some of which are…
Why are the St. Louis Blues called the Blues?
If you google St. Louis Blues, you will certainly see much more hockey than music. That is because our city’s own Stanley-Cup-winning hockey franchise is named after the seminal W.C. Handy song: the St. Louis Blues!! Created as part of the NHL’s 1967 expansion, the St. Louis Blues were the longest-running NHL team to have never won the Stanley Cup until their glorious victory in the year 2019. When they first started playing, the team played in the historic St. Louis Arena (pictured below), which was owned by the same family who owned the rival Chicago Blackhawks. In many ways, the Blues were initially founded to be an inferior rival to the Blackhawks, although they’ve regularly given the team a run for their money. And perhaps the name is fitting for an underdog, as blues music has historically been an outlet for the outsiders of society. The team’s logo is a blue eighth note, which I and many other musicians probably like to think of as being a “blue note” or a flatted third scale degree.
The name St. Louis Blues also highlights the city’s major role in the history of blues music. As a Great Migration hub for African-Americans leaving the south during the Jim Crow era, St. Louis became a mecca for Black art and music in the 20th century. In this city, legends like Scott Joplin, Chuck Berry, Albert King, St. Louis Jimmy Oden, and many other foundational blues musicians pushed the music forward. That’s why the National Blues Museum was founded here and continues a centuries-long tradition of blues excellence in St. Louis, Missouri.
Is St. Louis Blues a Movie?
Yes! Two films have been made with the song as their title, one in 1929 and one in 1958.
The 1929 short film St. Louis Blues is the only footage we have of the foundational, legendary, and essential blues singer Bessie Smith performing. It is also one of the National Blues Museum’s most gripping and beautiful pieces. Directed by Dudley Murphy, the film is unique for its all-Black cast, presented in a relatively unprejudiced light for the time period. It is from early in the period of films with sound, or “talkies,” and makes use of audio to capture Smith and a band made up of seminal early blues musicians like pianist James P. Johnson, cornetists Thomas Morris and Joe Smith, guitarist Bernard Addison, and the legendary choir led by Francis Hall Johnson. Bessie Smith is portrayed singing the song in an all-Black speakeasy (an illegal establishment selling alcohol during the prohibition era). While she sings, the film depicts the narrative of the song. St. Louis Blues is sung from the perspective of a woman whose man has left her, and the 1929 short depicts just that, with Smith singing the song as the narrator while sitting in the speakeasy. The film portrays abusive masculinity and infidelity which are central to the narrative of the song, as well as many other blues narratives. The reactions of the audience are particularly intriguing to watch, and those around her eventually join her in beautiful harmony singing (the singers are members of Francis Hall Johnson’s choir). In all, the film is fascinating as a portrayal of Black culture made by the racist, white-run entertainment industry (RKO pictures distributed the film), but its real value is the performance of Smith, whose vocal and performance style set the tone for generations of vocalists in blues, jazz, soul, and all other forms of American music.
If you want to learn more about Bessie Smith and her seminal impact on blues and American culture, NBM highly recommends Angela Davis’ Book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, which explores the impact of Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Billie Holiday.
The 1958 St. Louis Blues film is a full-length biopic of “St. Louis Blues” composer W.C. Handy, which also features filmed performances of legendary musicians. Handy is portrayed by the seminal jazz vocalist Nat “King” Cole. Other artists include Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Eartha Kitt, gospel icon Mahalia Jackson, and Billy Preston.
Is St. Louis Blues a blues song?
This one’s a toughie. If you asked blues guitar legend T-Bone Walker, he would answer with a resounding “No.” W.C. Handy was exposed to blues music as an outsider. While traveling in Mississippi, Handy witnessed the area’s local musical culture (influenced by work songs, the culture of enslaved African-Americans, and the global artistic mixing of nearby New Orleans) and weaned the aesthetic form of the blues into his own style. In this context, “St. Louis Blues” borrows more from blues vocabulary than it stands as a prototypical blues song. Along these lines, T-Bone Walker had this to say about the song:
“Now, you take a piece like ‘St. Louis Blues.’ That’s a pretty tune and it has kind of a bluesy tone, but that’s not the blues. You can’t dress up the blues… I’m not saying that ‘St. Louis Blues’ isn’t fine music you understand. But it just isn’t blues.”
When you hear how T-Bone Walker plays the blues, you can kind of see where he’s coming from…
On the other hand, the verses of the song follow a 12-bar form, one of the most recognizable characteristics of blues music. Yet the song also has a 16-bar bridge with a habanera rhythmic feel, borrowing from Hispanic music vocabulary. In this context, the song reflects popular AABA song forms rather than a strict blues structure. Despite that, the harmonic complexity inherent to blues music made the song revolutionary, and the blues is essential to what has made it such a historically important piece of American music.
Additionally, once the word “blues” became a musical fad in the 1910s and 1920s, you could get away with calling songs “INSERT CITY NAME/CONCEPT/OBJECT Blues” that were MUCH less blues-like than “St. Louis Blues.” The more rigid definition of blues forms isn’t all-encompassing in the genre either, so St. Louis Blues and its groundbreaking sounds could certainly get a pass.
Making a huge impact on blues, jazz, and music of many kinds, St. Louis Blues definitely stands as a benchmark of blues music and sits on a pedestal in blues culture. So here, at the National Blues Museum, we are happy to call “St. Louis Blues” a piece of blues music.
You can come see Bessie Smith’s performance of the song in St. Louis Blues here at the National Blues Museum, one of the best things to do in St. Louis (featured by the New York Times). Stick around on Thursday nights for our FREE blues jam session, where musicians of all skill levels can sit in and play. Friday nights are Howlin’ Fridays here at NBM, where you can see the best in St. Louis and national blues talent. The museum is a great thing to do rain or shine, winter, spring, summer, or fall. If you’re looking for a fun outdoor weekend activity this summer, our blues on the Block series brings FREE blues music to downtown St. Louis, where you can set up chairs, bring a picnic, and dance with our friendly regular fans to the sounds of fantastic Blues and R&B music. If you’re visiting the great river city of STL, make sure to come by the National Blues Museum—an excellent occasion for adults, kids, families, and blues and non-blues fans alike. Trust us, you’ll come to love the blues. We hope to see you here soon!