St. Louis, Missouri

St. Louis Blues by Bessie Smith

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St. Louis woman with her diamond rings
Pulls that man 'round by her apron strings Read full Lyrics
Bessie Smith is often referred to as the greatest singer of the blues. She had a powerful voice and her songs truly represented the tough times people faced. Doubly so in her case, being a woman in what was then very much a man's world. She was a perfect example of "if at first you don't succeed, try and try again," as she was rejected by several record companies before hitting the jackpot. She wore striking outfits and her performances were described as being once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

Gateway Arch from observation area<br>Photo: <a href="">Starkin at English Wikipedia</a>, <a href="">CC BY-SA 3.0</a>, via Wikimedia CommonsGateway Arch from observation area
Photo: Starkin at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
If the blues are about – among other things – poverty, then Bessie Smith had plenty of first-hand experience. She was at the coalface of going hungry. She was an orphan at a young age, brought up by an older sister. Buskers are common in cities today, and when she was a young girl, Bessie Smith was busking for the basics in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the late 1890s.

Then she got a recording contract, and in time things went up and kept going. She was the star of a 40-strong touring company with Bessie having her own railroad car. But it wasn't an easy marketplace, especially for women, and more so for black women. To add to that, Bessie copped the bad-timing luck, because the Depression and the advent of "talkies" were two factors nobody could foresee.

When the economy turned sour, the entertainment business took a hit. And when the movies began using talking actors, vaudeville took a hit. But Bessie kept on performing and even made the switch to the emerging swing-time music, recording songs backed by such greats as Benny Goodman and Jack Teagarden.

Sadly, her premature death in 1937 was as much spectacular as it was tragic. She was a passenger in a car which side-swiped a truck. Bessie was badly injured. A passing doctor gave her first aid, but another car came racing along and crashed into the doctor's parked vehicle, which then smashed into Bessie's car. The speeding car just missed hitting the injured singer and medical man. Bessie was taken to a hospital where her right arm was amputated, and where she died without regaining consciousness.

St. Louis from the air<br>Photo: <a href="" target="_blank">Rob Reiring</a>, via Flickr, CC 2.0St. Louis from the air
Photo: Rob Reiring, via Flickr, CC 2.0
The tale of woe doesn't end there; apropos for a singer of the blues. Bessie's estranged husband made attempts to raise money for a memorial stone, but managed to hang onto the funds himself. It wasn't until 1971 that Janis Joplin and others saw to it that a headstone was finally placed on Bessie's grave.

This song's composer fared a heck of a lot better, enjoying royalties of about $25,000 a year when he died in the 1950s. Mr. WC Handy certainly didn't have the blues in conjunction with "St. Louis Blues."

St Louis, Missouri, had a strong French and Catholic beginning and upbringing. Today it's a cultural and sporting city with many tourist attractions. The Empire State Building gives an outstanding view of the city, and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis towers 630 feet above the mighty Mississippi and provides panoramic views of the city and surrounds.

On a sporting note, St. Louis' professional ice hockey team was named after this song.

There are heaps of unusual attractions in this city. The interactive kids' museum includes climbing a three-story beanstalk and sitting in the Oval House in the kids' own White House. In 1904 the World Fair was held in what is now Forest Park. It has walking paths, magnificent floral displays, golf courses, waterways and the original World Fair Pavilion, perfect for picnics and parties.

Tourist treats are everywhere in St Louis. There are fabulous shopping malls and eateries, together with outdoor adventure parks and exciting historical venues, including the home of another great local musician, ragtime's Scott Joplin.

We suggest you add getting the blues in St. Louis to your bucket list.

Cenarth Fox
May 12, 2014
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