Saturday, June 22, 2013

St. Louis-Confluence

In geography a confluence is the meeting of two or more bodies of water, as is the case in St. Louis with the merging of the Mississippi and the Missouri, the two longest rivers in America. Through its earliest days as a home for Native American settlements, through French discovery and eventual inclusion into the huge Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of America, St. Louis has been a place of convergence and divergence.

Since its early days, the city has been a gateway to the West, and today the world famous Arch, built in the 1960s, is a testimony to and symbol of this westward-facing expansion and opportunity. Many people, particularly the poor and opportunistic African American southern population, saw St. Louis as a vortex of fortuity and fortune. The confluence of not just rivers but of culture brought to and through it fresh ideas that spread like wildfire across the nation through the hunger for entertainment.

Chicago is often considered the primary urban area where the blues flourished but St. Louis may stretch a nose ahead. W.C. Handy, considered the father of the blues, said that he first heard the blues in 1892 on the levee in St. Louis: "While sleeping on the cobblestones in St. Louis, I heard shabby guitarists picking out a tune called 'East St. Louis.' It had numerous one line verses and they would sing it all night."

The video above is the W.C. Handy recording of Saint Louis Blues from 1914 in which you can hear the jazz interconnection and interestingly inspired the "foxtrot" seen below.

Marches and jigs were extremely popular after the Civil War and the echoes of this could be heard in the earliest blues recordings, which then progressed to ragtime, which Scott Joplin
popularized from the saloon and-brothel hopping minstrels. It was said that there was an area outside of St. Louis called "Shake Ragtown" that might have contributed to this moniker, others claim it comes from its ragged syncopated rhythms.

The emergence of the word "jazz" in the early twentieth century sparked one of the most sought-after word origin searches in the English Language. It is believed to have come from the now obsolete west coast slang word, "jasm" from around the year 1860, meaning spirit, energy, vigor. Jism is often used derogatorily today to mean sperm or semen along with the word "spunk," which interestingly reconnects it around to the original meaning in use such as, "she showed a lot of spunk."

We went out in search of the St. Louis-accented blues and discovered BB's Jazz, Blues, and Soups Club which along with being a great old bar/restaurant/music venue, is partly a museum of jazz and blues records and pictures of the artists who created  them.

Lady Luck smiled on us that evening with music by the Saint Louis Social Club, an awesome group of musicians with over 300 years of combined musical experience and heritage from playing and studying with many of the original local blues and jazz greats. These guys were handed the torch from the past masters and carry it with pride and a strong desire to marry the sound of "old school" blues with artistic musical authenticity and uniqueness. We are witness to the evolution of the genre from generation to generation. Enjoy this video of their virtuosity.

Interesting Anecdotes
Big Joe Williams, the famous Delta blues guitarist, singer, and song writer, played a custom-made nine string guitar primarily to keep others from playing it. Here is a shot of it with rudimentary electric pick-ups and wacky wiring all over the place.

                                         Big Joe, and you win points if you can guess who he is with.

He came to St. Louis in 1934 and in 1935 recorded the famous blues song "Baby, Please Don't Go" which he said he stole from Bessie Mae Smith, (the St. Louis Bessie not the other car wreck Bessie!), after hearing her sing it to him. This is the original recording and after this, watch the cover of this song by an older Muddy Waters and very special guests who join him on stage to share vocals.

Oh! and Bessie Mae? Here is an original recording of her singing, "He Treats Me Like a Dog", 1930. She was the common law wife of Big Joe and I'm getting lost in the infinite web of stories and interconnected facts. Oh Joy! Confluence is not confusing.

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