St. Louis Blues was first published in 1914, written by William Christopher (W.C.) Handy, known today as the ‘Father of the Blues.’ As Wikipedia tells us, Handy began his musical career on the road, listening to other musicians play:
In 1902 Handy traveled throughout Mississippi, where he listened to the various black popular musical styles. The state was mostly rural, and music was part of the culture, especially of the Mississippi Delta cotton plantation areas. Musicians usually played the guitar, banjo and to a much lesser extent, the piano. Handy’s remarkable memory enabled him to recall and transcribe the music heard in his travels.
It was the first commercially successful blues song, although blues had long been a style of music before then. Handy dressed it up somewhat with the musical influences he had picked up, including some ragtime and Dixieland overtones.
The first performer to record it was Marion Harris, a white woman who started her career in 1916, and recorded many other blues and jazz tunes until she retired in the 1930s. Her passion for singing blues on record earned her the nickname, ‘Queen of the Blues.’
Perhaps the best known performance of the song was recorded by the great Bessie Smith in 1925, backed by a young Louis Armstrong. Smith appeared in a 1929 talkie called St. Louis Blues – apparently her only appearance in film – in which she sang the title song as well, with an orchestra and chorus that gives the song a strong gospel overtone. You can watch it here: Youtube.
Rudy Vallee, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, the Mills Brothers, Paul Robeson, Django Reinhardt, Art Tatum, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Chet Atkins, Judy Garland, Chuck Berry, Stevie Wonder, Etta James and Hugh Laurie are among the many musicians who have recorded it since. Most recently it was featured by Margot Bingham (Daughter Maitland) in an episode of the TV series, Boardwalk Empire:
While the lyrics were originally written for a male singer, the great female singers have made it their own by singing it from a woman’s perspective. It’s song that its many performers have adapted and made their own, adding their unique sounds and styles to it.
The song has three distinct parts: several main verses that follow the traditional 12-bar blues format, plus a chorus and a bridge.
The song is rarely done with all of the material Handy wrote in his original: the six verses, five different choruses, and three bridges all have their own lyrics. Today it’s more common to hear three or four verses, and one chorus and one bridge.
In order to arrange this song, I went back to Handy’s own arrangement, a mid-1902s version with ukulele chords, which is included in the vintage uke music collection. I put it together in the key of A.
Here are a few other Youtube versions:
The verses are arranged like this:
[A] I hate to see [D] that evening sun go [A] down [A7]
[D] I hate to see that [D7] evening sun go [A] down [A7]
[E7] ‘Cause, my baby, she’s [D7*] gone and left this [A] town [D7] [A] [E7]
Note: For a bluesy effect, instead of the chord marked D7*, you can slide the E7 up one fret then back to E7. I’ve marked this as F7? in the chord diagrams, below. I show two different ways to play D7 – the full chord 2223 (marked D7*) and the reduced version as 2020. Which you use is context specific as well as personal taste: it depends on what works best for the song. I use both forms as I feel necessary. See the chord diagrams, below.
The chorus takes you into the bluesy minor chords:
[Am] St. Louis woman, [Dm] with her dia- [Cdim7] mond [E7] ring
[E7] Pulls a man around, by her apron [Am] strings
[Am] If it weren’t for the powder, [Dm] and for store-[Cdim7] bought [E7] hair
[E7] That man she loves would go no- [Am] where, [B7] no- [E7] where
The bridge goes back to a 12-bar major-key format, but adds another twist:
[E7] I got the [A] St. [F#m] Louis [A] Blues [F#m]
Just as [A] blue as [F#m] I can [A] be [A7]
[Bm] That woman’s got a [D] heart like a [Bm7] rock cast [D] in the [A] sea [F#min] [A]
[A7] Or else, she [E7] wouldn’t have gone so [D7*] far away from [A] me [D7] [A] [E7]
You can play the Bm here as Bm7 instead. The movement between the A and F#min and the D and Bm7 chords will appear again in other songs, including Elvis Presley’s All Shook Up and Bob Dylan’s It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry. I’ll cover those songs in later posts.
You can download a PDF of this song here.
- Sporting Life Blues
- Ukulele Workshop Today