It’s now a hundred years since W.C. Handy wrote the thing, and it remains the number that springs to everybody’s mind when they think of ‘The Blues’.
Yet it isn’t even, technically, a blues, except episodically. It’s something much more complicated, as anyone who’s tried to play it will know. One section is even in a Latin American rhythm instead of the standard duple or quadruple beat of the classic blues. Classic blues has (have?) a formality far greater than that of, say, sonata form; greater even than fugue. Oddly, (if you’re not a musician), it is this very rigidity of form that makes it just the thing for easy improvisation: one knows exactly when the harmonies will change, and what to. The clumsiest jazz player can play a twelve-bar blues at a comfortable tempo all night long, and probably will if you don’t stop him.
In those hundred years there have of course been many hundred recordings of the Saint Louis Blues, and all different. By far the most remarkable remains the one made in January 1925 by the greatest of all blues singers Bessie Smith. I first heard it, with the force of revelation, when I was sixteen, and it still amazes me. Bessie Smith is accompanied by Fred Longshaw on what record labels usually call a harmonium, but is in fact an American Organ. (Both are keyboard reed instruments running on foot-operated bellows and often used in country churches — the difference is that in the harmonium the air is sucked through the reeds, and in the American Organ blown, which allows for greater dynamic range.) Oh, and the cornet obbligato is played by the 24-year-old Louis Armstrong.