Monthly Archives: August 2008

St Louis Blues

“Blues” broke with the publication of W. C. Handy’s seminal compositions “Memphis Blues” in 1912 and then “St. Louis Blues” in 1914. At that time the recording industry existed but was still subdominant to the sheet music industry. Between 1917 and 1923 their roles reversed, and both of these stayed popular in the new industry.

Here are five versions of St Louis Blues in chronological order, starting almost ten years after the first publication.

  1. W.C. Handy’s Memphis Blues Band in 1922: St Louis Blues, from W.C. Handy’s Memphis Blues Band.

    Handy learned his trade in minstrel bands before the turn of the century, and by 1922 his sound was pretty square. His take on the hot style here is credible but still stiff, like the Eagles doing a Nirvana cover. But still, it’s his damn song and nobody knows better than him how it should go.

  2. W.C. Handy’s Memphis Blues Band in 1922: St. Louis Blues—Medley Fox Trot (Intro: Ole Miss Blues), from Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1891-1922.

    By the time something gets used in a medley it’s a pretty huge hit.

  3. Louis Armstrong sometime between 1925 and 1929: St Louis Blues, from Hot Fives and Sevens (Disc 4).

    This is one of the best bands in the history of jazz at the peak of its form. This version shows the song turning into a broad framework for musicians to assert their own style.

  4. Bessie Smith in the 1929 film St. Louis Blues:

    The way she lays on the pathos is close to Handy’s original vision. The schmaltzy chorus and big-budget band is a whole nother thing.

  5. Bob Willis and his Texas Playboys sometime around 1935: St. Louis Blues, from The King of Western Swing.

    21 years after publication and still going strong, but getting further and further from the original sound, by now a hillbilly jazz tune.

birth of the hot

19th century American culture had endless layers of social protocol. They used personal titles in family life: “Professor Cunningham, please pass the salt.” They used multiple initials in their full names: “W. E. B. DuBois”, or “D. E. Jannon.” They used elaborate circumlocutions, like saying “prestidigitation” instead of “magic trick.”

Manners were a big deal, so music respected protocol even when it was intended for partying. And that made it too stiff for our ears. Our ears expect music to breach protocol. We still care about hierarchy at the office, but we don’t want it on the dance floor. And there was a transitional time in music when hot sounds were rare and shocking.

The change to hot styles was related to blacks assuming cultural leadership. Throughout the 19th century blacks had been dominant among performers, even of styles we think of as white. Between 1893 and 1930, black musicians led the introduction of modern styles — ragtime in 1893, blues in 1914, and then jazz in 1917.

Here are four recordings from this transitional time. The last three are all from the killer Archeophone release Stomp and Swerve – American Music Gets Hot. Note that I’m using the versions hosted on, which are not as clean.

1902: John Phillip Sousa’s band plays Liberty Bell March. This is the point of departure.

1908: The Zon-O-Phone Concert Band plays Scott Joplin’s rag The Smiler. Notice how much more lively Joplin’s writing is than Sousa’s.

1914: Castle House Rag played by Europe’s Society Orchestra. Europe is James Reese Europe. His style was crazy hot and way before it’s time, analogous to early Stooges. Give this time to build to the climax and you’ll see what I mean.

1917: Livery Stable Blues played by the Original Dixieland Jass Band, a white act with plenty of sloppy enthusiasm but limited technique. This is the record that broke the hot style into the mainstream.

August shows

On Friday 8/29 I’ll play at Arnie’s cafe in Tujunga with my friends David Orser, Scott Boyd, and Fred the drummer. This will be a slacker jam of old time music. I imagine the highlight will be David’s ragtime piano playing, which is amazing.

I’ll do a solo show at an Obama fundraiser on Sunday August 31st. It’s a garden party in Silverlake, Los Angeles, held by a woman named Jane Cantillon with a reputation for putting on great parties. Jane and her husband Dick are a lot of fun, and it’ll be a good time for a fine cause.

I’ll also be playing with Madame Pamita at the Coffee Gallery Backstage in Altadena on Tuesday the 19th. This is a cabaret style event where I’ll be playing in Pam’s band and doing a solo song.

transcription of “Elizabeth June” by Kristen Hersh

This is my transcription of Kristen Hersh’s song Elizabeth June. This is a lead sheet with the chords, melody, and lyrics together. I don’t have a good transcription of the guitar picking patterns.

I got to know this song well by transcribing it, which is a great thing about transcription. The engine of the song is the way that she handles variation. The left and right picking patterns are closely related but clearly distinct; for example they have contrary motion within a narrow range of pitches to produce enough complexity to keep the song from sounding like a Joan Baez accompaniment. The melody is about balance between repetition and invention. Economy is a big issue. The thinking in this piece me of Morton Feldman’s piece “For Bunita Marcos.” If you listen to the MP3 of the MIDI of the vocal line by itself, as if there wasn’t supposed to be anything else, it sounds a *lot* like that.

At first my least favorite line in the lyrics was “your new moguls: trees”, which struck me as trying too hard. Now it’s my favorite line because it’s funny.

Here’s what the sheet music looks like:

Elizabeth June sheet music, page 2
Elizabeth June sheet music, page 3

sheet music archive at Mississippi State

The sheet music collection at Mississippi State is a fine archive that I haven’t come across before. Something notable about them is that they publish the music as PDFs rather than images embedded in web pages. Although it’s a bit annoying to not be able to browse the pages, it’s really nice to not have to grab and print each page one by one.

Here’s the cover sheet for their scan of the 1899 cakewalk Smokey Mokes:

Smokey Mokes cover sheet