Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics

Video: Bessie Smith, “St. Louis Blues”

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Josh Jones writing for Open Culture says of this scene:

Released in 1929, the “flawed, but absolutely essential” film St. Louis Blues frames Bessie Smith’s character through the lyrics of composer W.C. Handy, widely considered the “father of the blues” for his popularization of the form. But Smith was more than an ancestor—she was royalty. The press in her day called her the “Empress of the Blues.”

Smith “comes off as a force of nature,” writes Mark Cantor, “whose startling power is rivaled in 1920s jazz and blues only by Louis Armstrong.” Like Armstrong, her influence is incalculable. Sadly, the year she made her film appearance is also the year of her decline, when the Great Depression hit her—and the record business—hard, and the very medium she helped launch, sound film, crippled the Vaudeville venues that made her career. Smith’s tragic end after a car accident in 1937 was immortalized in Edward Albee’s 1959 The Death of Bessie Smith. Her voice lives on forever—in her recordings and through singers from Billie Holiday to Janis Joplin—who paid for her gravestone in 1970.

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Email subscribers may click on the title of this post to watch the video.

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Bessie Smith sang a number of different versions of the song during her career, the one in the film being just one. Here are the lyrics to Handy’s original version:

I hate to see that evening sun go down
I hate to see that evening sun go down
Cause my baby, he’s gone left this town
Feelin’ tomorrow like I feel today
If I’m feelin’ tomorrow like I feel today
I’ll pack my truck and make my give-a-way
St. Louis woman with her diamond ring
Pulls that man around by her, if it wasn’t for her and her
That man I love would have gone nowhere, nowhere
I got the St. Louis blues, blues 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 love my baby like a school boy loves his pie
Like a Kentucky colonel loves his mint ‘n rye
I love my man till the day I die
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Screen shot from St. Louis Blues, 1929

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