Words & Music: W. C. Handy (1914)

Lyrics

Verses:
1. I hate to see the evening sun go down,
I hate to see the evening sun go down,
’cause my baby, he done left this town.

2. Feeling tomorrow like I feel today,
feeling tomorrow like I feel today,
I’ll pack my bags and make my getaway.

Interlude:
Saint Louis woman
with her diamond rings
pulls that man
by her apron strings;
weren’t for powder
or store-bought hair,
the man I love
wouldn’t have gone nowhere,
nowhere.

Chorus:
Got the St. Louis Blues
just as blue as I can be,
that man’s got a heart
like a rock cast in the sea –
or else he wouldn’t have gone
so far from me.

I loves my man
like a schoolboy loves his pie,
like a Kentucky colonel
loves his mint and rye.
I’ll love my baby
till the day I die.

Background

One of the most famous of all blues, “Saint Louis Blues” was allegedly inspired by a chance meeting with a woman on the streets of St. Louis distraught over her husband’s absence, who lamented, “Ma man’s got a heart like a rock cast in de sea,” a key line of the song. IMH director Peter Muir has written extensively on the song in his book Long Lost Blues: Popular Blues in America (1850-1920) (University of Illinois Press, 2010), describing it as “one of the most remarkable achievements, not just in blues, but in all American music.” Although strikingly original in its structure and content, Muir shows how the famous theme of the chorus is derived from an earlier (1908) composition by one Antonio Maggio of New Orleans titled ” I Got the Blues.”

Part of the originality of the song is the way it combines traditional blues idiom with the tango (in the introduction and interlude).  Writing about the first time “St Louis Blues” was played, composer W.C. Handy notes that “When St Louis Blues was written the tango was in vogue. I tricked the dancers by arranging a tango introduction, breaking abruptly into a low-down blues. My eyes swept the floor anxiously, then suddenly I saw lightning strike. The dancers seemed electrified. Something within them came suddenly to life. An instinct that wanted so much to live, to fling its arms to spread joy, took them by the heels.”

Performances

Here is a 1920 recording by the popular singer Marion Harris:

And here is a 1929 video recording by blues singer Bessie Smith. The song doesn’t start in earnest until about one minute in.