Thursday, 13 January 2011

St Louis Blues

Last week I stumbled over St Louis Blues, by W.C.Handy, the father of the blues. Listen to this tune.  If you have an online music resource, like Spotify, see how many versions of this tune there are: dozens and dozens. Artists like Chuck Berry, Django Reinhardt, and of course, Bessie Smith/Louis Armstrong.  Now hear how each version reflects its time, its performer, its context.  Every version preserves its essential "St Louis Blues"ness, and yet is moulded to serve the purposes of the performing artist.

For me, this is interesting, because it is NOT the way I grew up listening to and understanding music.  After all, a tune like "Penny Lane" exists in a definitive, canonical performance.  Only that version is the real "Penny Lane".  Cover versions are, well, pointless, because the Beatles laid down the one and only way it should sound.

Come back to St Louis Blues.  Every version sounds "right".  Chuck Berry, or Brenda Lee make it belong to the rock-and-roll era, Django puts it on springs, Bessie and Louis take it right back to New Orleans.  What is going on here?  It's as if the St Louis meme combines with Django's gypsy jazz to create a unique offspring.  But why does it work so well, in almost all cases?  Why is it so adaptable?  Is there something special about this tune? Or is this just the passage of time (incredibly the tune is 97 years old) that has brought the tune to the attention of so many musicians, who have in effect selected the best of tunes, leaving the lesser ones behind?  Or was the first half of the twentieth century just the right environment for this flourishing of popular tunes?

Nice questions to think about.  And of course, St Louis Blues is such fun to PLAY, and how lucky I am to be able to take that St Louis DNA and make my own version.

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