Written by Maureen Maryanski, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections.
An often overlooked source of historical and cultural memory is the ephemeral format of sheet music. The New-York Historical Society houses an extensive sheet music collection numbering close to 15,000. Many of these are from the 19th century, but a significant subsection contains popular songs from the early to mid-20th century. One of the most famous and widely recorded early blues songs is W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.” The N-YHS holds sheet music for this song in a ukulele arrangement. From this document, and especially the beautiful illustration and publicity information gleaned from the front cover, multiple threads of the story of early blues music, and its publication, performance and recording, can be deciphered.
First, we begin with the composer W.C. Handy (1873-1958). Known as the “Father of the Blues,” Handy was one of the first to publish music in this form, beginning in 1912 with “Memphis Blues.” The song caught the ear of New York bandleader James Reese Europe, who was employed by famous dance couple Irene and Vernon Castle. The Castles proceeded to use the song to accompany their new step, the foxtrot. In 1914, “Memphis Blues” became the first blues song preserved on record. Following the success of the song, Handy started his own publishing company, Pace and Handy Music Company, only the third music publishing company owned by African Americans. In 1918, he moved to New York, and by 1920 he operated the publishing company as a family-owned business, Handy Brothers Music Company, at 1545 Broadway, described on this piece of sheet music as the “Home of the Blues.”
While “Memphis Blues” was among the first, “St. Louis Blues” is considered the best example of early blues music, and the first to be successful as a popular song. Published in 1914, the song is supposedly based on Handy’s experiences being penniless and sleeping on the streets of St. Louis in 1892. As with his other blues compositions, much of his inspiration was drawn from preexisting folk music of the South, evident from the musical structure, as well as the lyrics written in dialect: “I hate to see de ev’nin’ sun go down.” However, with “St. Louis Blues” Handy combined this black rural blues tradition with a habanera rhythm to create what has been heralded as a masterpiece of blue notes and syncopation. Early versions of “St. Louis Blues” were usually up tempo, reflecting the song’s appearance during the ragtime era and its use as a dance arrangement, this time for the tango. The first recording of the song appeared in 1915, but the first great vocal recording came in 1920 with Marion Harris’ slower rendition, which also began a counter-tradition of singing the song as a lament.
It is Marion Harris’ recording for the Columbia Phonograph Company, record number 2944, that is advertised with this ukulele sheet music. So, who was Marion Harris? Though her name might not be familiar today, she was one of the most popular singers of her day, praised as the “Queen of Blues” and later “The Little Girl with the Big Voice.” Little is known of her background beyond her birth in 1896, possibly in Kentucky or Indiana. Discovered in a Chicago-area theater by Vernon Castle in the early 1910s, her debut recording was in 1916 for Victor Records. Her move to Columbia in 1920 was partly due to her desire to record the “St. Louis Blues,” as discussed by Handy in his 1941 autobiography Father of the Blues. A top recording artist, vaudeville star, and radio personality through the early 1930s, Harris famously recorded other songs including “After You’ve Been Gone,” “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” and “The Man I Love.” As with nearly all early recorded blues vocalists, Harris was white, yet as Handy wrote in his autobiography, “Miss Harris had used our numbers in vaudeville for a long time, and she sang the blues so well that people hearing her records sometimes through that the singer was colored.” Her recordings and creativity influenced subsequent singers and stars, including Ruth Etting and Bing Crosby.
The “St. Louis Blues” has an extensive legacy as a fundamental part of jazz repertoire and one of the most widely recorded blues songs, from Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong’s legendary 1925 version to last year’s rendition by Hugh Laurie and the Copper Bottom Band. You can even perform your own interpretation, on ukulele, by visiting the New-York Historical Society and looking at the sheet music yourself!