On musical travels through the Midwest in 1892, W.C. Handy, the “Father of the Blues” from Florence, Alabama, found himself down and out on the St. Louis levee. Nearly nineteen-years-old, the son and grandson of African Methodist Episcopalian ministers was “broke,” hungry, and homeless after a Black labor contractor cheated him out of two weeks’ wages in East St. Louis. Handy, whose mildly prosperous family opposed his playing secular music, was compelled by circumstances to sleep wherever he could rest his head. He bedded down in a horse’s stall at the St. Louis racetrack or nodded off in a poolroom chair among steamboat roustabouts in the Black entertainment district near the waterfront. A vacant lot at the corner of 12th & Morgan streets was his bed under the stars, and so was the levee. As he later reflected, “I slept on the cobblestones of the levee of the Mississippi. My companions were perhaps a thousand men of both races. (W.C. Handy, Father of the Blues: An Autobiography Da Capo Press, reprint ed., 1968, p. 27).
Handy, so lice-infested that he threw away his shirt and undergarments, was destitute one night outside a white saloon on the levee. From inside poured forth the sounds of a singer, a guitar, and the lyrics of a familiar song, “Afterwards.” Two lines of the song’s lyrics, in particular, were favorites of his: Sometimes my heart grows weary of its sadness; sometimes my life grows weary of its pain.
Raised on gospel music in segregated Alabama, Handy at first hesitated to step inside a white saloon, but the lure of the music proved too powerful. “Moved suddenly by the familiar tune, I forgot that I had no shirt under my coat, that I was a miserable sight and that I shouldn’t have been in that place under any circumstances,” he later recalled. The bartender treated him rudely at first, but “when he found that I too could play the guitar and sing that song as well as others, he changed his tone. When I finished a second selection, the crowd in the saloon took up a collection, gave it to me, and invited me to come and sing often. I did not accept the invitation, but I did buy a change of clothing” (p. 28).
On the levee, Handy overheard “shabby guitarists” plucking out a tune, “East St. Louis Blues.” The song contained many verses like this one, sung repetitively: I walked all the way from East St. Louis, and I didn’t have but one po’ measly dime (p. 142). On another cobblestone night, an intoxicated woman muttered as she brushed past him: “Ma man’s got a heart like a rock cast in de sea.” Puzzled by the words’ meaning, Handy asked another woman passing by if she could interpret them. She replied, “Lawd man it’s hard and so far gone from her she can’t reach it” (p. 121).
Twenty-two years later in Memphis, the intoxicated woman’s words ended up in the lyrics of “Saint Louis Blues” when fragmented memories of the levee inspired Handy one night on Beale Street in 1914: That man’s got a heart like a rock cast in the sea or else he wouldn’t have gone so far from me. In the opening line of the song, Handy set the tone: I hate to see de evenin’ sun go down. As he later added, “And if you ever had to sleep on the cobbles down by the river in St. Louis, you’ll understand that complaint” (p. 121).
There have been countless versions of Handy’s classic song, but when blues singer Bessie Smith recorded it in 1925, she took it to new heights. Accompanied by Louis Armstrong on the cornet, she made the song hers. The Youtube video of her soulful recording below includes images of St. Louis’s Black entertainment district in the early 1900s. You can click on the link below to listen. My new book, Shantyboats and Roustabouts, will include additional material on Handy’s 1892 experiences among the river poor of St. Louis.
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