Tuesday, June 12, 2007

St. Louis Blues, Bessie Smith & Louis Armstrong

Eads Bridge, St. Louis, 1905

St. Louis Blues, Bessie Smith & Louis Armstrong, January 14, 1925

Bessie Smith, vocal
Louis Armstrong, cornet
Fred Longshaw, harmonium (reed organ)

Here is a song that is claimed as a classic in both blues and jazz circles. The song had been written back in 1914 by W. C. Handy, the "father of the blues." It has been recorded many times; this is the classic recording. The musical relationship between Bessie and Louis is one of the most celebrated in American music. Temperamentally they do not seem to have meshed too well; I expect it was because of Bessie Smith's inability to share the stage. Louis Armstrong was used to dominating his performances, but he also played accompaniment to a great many blues singers, and could adjust his personality to other performers. Bessie Smith - I take nothing away from her musicianship here - seems to be the kind of person who was used to center stage. She deserved it. As a performer, she often used accompanists, often of high caliber, but she simply does not need them. In her recordings with Armstrong it is more likely to be Armstrong who gets tied up or plays inappropriately. In any case, their recordings are indeed classic, and deserve careful listening.

Fred Longshaw on the reed organ seems like the odd man out, here. It is not an especially jazzy instrument, but it does lend an old-timey feel to the piece, and he doesn't ruin anything. The recording has become such a standby, its hard to imagine it without this weepy sort of sound.

Introduction 0 - 3

The introduction consists of a single bar with the cornet and harmonium playing a note in unison that increases in dynamics. The organ starts playing and the cornet gradually takes over. This sound gives the recording a churchy sort of feeling.

First 12-bar blues chorus - the A theme 4 - 49

I hate to see the evening sun go down [trumpet fill]
I hate to see the evening sun go down [trumpet fill]
It makes me think I'm on my last go-round. [trumpet fill]

These lyrics (much longer in the original by Handy) are typical in the blues. We recognize the familiar 3-verse stanza (a stanza is the equivalent of a paragraph in verse) in which the second line repeats the first.

The mood is melancholic, both regretful of the past and anxious for the future. The world out there is made to reflect the inner feelings of the speaker - a poetic device common not only to the blues but to both writing and living generally. (The pathetic fallacy is a poetic device similar to this one, in which something from nature is made to seem as if participating in a human emotion, as when Elmore James sings The sky is crying, look at the tears roll down the street.)

Notice how Bessie sings the word sun; that's a blue note.

You can hear how prominently Louis is making his presence felt. This may be a Bessie Smith number, but nobody who listens will fail to notice the trumpet accompanist. In the first fill he expressively belts out six notes - repetition is always a key feature of any music, and repeating the same note has its own particular sort of emphasis - before varying the notes. His responses match Bessie's mournful tone perfectly. Although they are perfect, I get the feeling it is like someone trying to show off how much sadder he is than you.

Second 12-bar blues chorus 50 - 1:32

Felling tomorrow like I feel today
Feeling tomorrow like I feel today
I'll pack my grip and make my getaway.

For my money, as good as these performers are throughout the song, in this verse they mesh perfectly, and its a glorious thing.

16-bar verse in a minor key 1:33 - 2:26

Most blues don't have verses. A verse, typically, is more likely to feature in the kind of song you find on Broadway or Hollywood, and is often left out of recordings (though Ella Fitzgerald, Dawn Upshaw, and other performers make a point of including them). Here, the verse provides significant contrast to the blues choruses, not only having a different form - 16 measures - but also because it modulates to a new new, minor key.

St. Louis woman, wears her diamond ring
Pulls her man around by her apron string
Wasn't for powder and this store-bought hair
The man I love wouldn't go nowhere, nowhere

Evidently, her lover is an easy mark for a loose woman who seems to have come from St. Louis and taken him away.

Third blues chorus, back to major key 2:27 - 3:12

I got them St. Louis blues, just as blue as I can be
He's got a heart like a rock cast in the sea
Or else he would not go so far from me.

The last blues chorus starts immediately after the verse. I can well imagine that Bessie has been both enamored of and annoyed by Louis's horning in on her song from the beginning - he is awfully good, which is by definition a good thing, but if he is that good, he might be wanting to take something away from her own performance. In any case, with this verse his fills seem to demand more space and take more time than necessary, and he plays a little like someone who has dropped something and is trying to pick it up.