Handy dreamed up “St. Louis Blues,” he tells us, in one long night in a Beale Street rooming house, a beachhead he established as a creative retreat from the distractions of domestic life. “My first decision,” he says, “was that my new song would be another blues, true to the soil and in the tradition of Memphis Blues. Ragtime, I had decided, was passing out” (118). The ragtime he has in mind isn’t the orchestral art of Scott Joplin but the catchy, light-hearted backing for so-called “coon songs,” a heightened form of minstrelsy featuring boastful, razor-wielding, watermelon-eating black roughnecks. Handy knows all about such stuff and decides that his song “would have an important difference” from such retrograde material: “The emotions that it expressed were going to be real” (119).
The emotional core of “St. Louis Blues” is generated by a moment of profound empathy with a female resident of that city who serves Handy as a folk exemplar, a native informant proffering the deepest of blues laments. A “flood of memories” places the Beale-Street-ensconced Handy back in St. Louis during his youthful wanderings—“broke, unshaven, wanting even a decent meal, and standing before the lighted saloon . . . without a shirt under my frayed coat”—and reminds him of “a woman whose pain seemed even greater than his own” as she muttered, “Ma man’s got a heart like a rock cast in de sea” (119) and stumbled past him, drunk and grief- stricken. The blues, his blues, he resolves, will honor, rather than mock, that emotional pain.
Of all the elements in Handy’s synthesis, the most significant in the long run—and the key to “St. Louis Blues”’s success—is his brilliantly simple solution to the blues songwriter’s quandary: how to render the microtonal subtleties of blues singing on the page, as sheet music. “The primitive Southern Negro,” he begins, “as he sang was sure to bear down on the third and seventh tones of the scale, slurring between major and minor. . . . I had tried to convey this effect in Memphis Blues by introducing flat thirds and sevenths (now called “blue notes”) into my song, although its prevailing key was the major; and I carried this device into my new melody as well” (120). The magic inheres in the tension between the major “prevailing key” and specific minor-y pitches that good blues singers know how to hit as they move melismatically upward and downward through what we have learned in subsequent years to call the blues scale. Those minor-y pitches don’t exist in standard western musical notation. They’re in-between notes. More often than not, these pitches move subtly upward or downward in the brief interval after they’re sounded.
Handy knew that it was impossible to accurately represent this sort of pitch-bending magic on the printed page, but he also knew how to approximate the magic, however roughly. It was possible to insert minor thirds and sevenths into a major key song. It was possible to use a minor third and major third in sequence in a song’s melody. The opening “I” in the first published version of “St. Louis Blues”—“I hate to see the evenin’ sun go down”—is sung to precisely that slurred sequence of notes. (The minor-third-in-a-major-key trick was, in his own time, actually called Handy’s “World Famous Blue Note.”)3