Bessie Smith feat. Louis Armstrong – The St. Louis Blues (1925)

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A standard and an early classic of jazz and blues, ‘St. Louis Blues’ was written and published in 1914 by W.C. Handy, the so-called ‘father of the blues’, and one of the most important songwriters of early American pop. Prior to the ‘Crazy Blues’ recording revolution, this song was one of the first songs written in blues form to find popular success. The song was a formal experiment – adopting the ragtime trick of combining different rhythms, with the main refrain in 12-bar blues time and the bridge in a 16-bar tango rhythm, Handy cashing in on the popularity of tango at the time. It was inevitable that Bessie Smith, the Empress of 1920s blues, should turn her hand to it; her version is definitive and breathtaking. Where to begin? Bessie’s vocal is front and centre, alongside Louis Armstrong‘s cornet. As Smith and Armstrong dance around each other, vying for the listener’s attention, they have an unsettling, eerie noise providing their musical backing; that’s Fred Longshaw, playing the reed organ. Reed organs were popular in the 19th century, and could be found in plenty of homes and small churches; but by the 1900s, pianos were becoming more commonplace and affordable, and the reed organ was falling out of favour. By the time recording became relatively commonplace in the ’20s, the reed organ was basically a thing of the past. And the instrument gives Bessie Smith’s version of ‘St. Louis Blues’ a decidedly weird flavour; a piano would make the song sound much more bluesy and jazzy – much more 1920s – while the reed organ sounds out of place and out of time, solemn and serious. Fittingly, the signification of the instrument was halfway between the religious pipe organ and the secular piano – fitting for this music’s secularisation of the sacred, marrying solemn spirituals with bawdy ragtime. At the time, the reed organ would have been old-fashioned; now it sounds so alien as to seem almost futuristic. [Source]

Audio:

Longform video:

[Dedicated to my dear friend Kristian Sandvad. He was not born in 1925. But it is his 50th birthday today!]

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