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