St. Louis in Early 20th Century Music

While there are many musical representations of early twentieth century St. Louis, there are two primary strains which present starkly different impressions of what life in the city was all about.

Much of the pride in the St. Louis community in the first half of the 20th century (at least) has been in connection with the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (St. Louis World’s Fair) of 1904 held in Forest Park. Many people still talk about that event as the high point in our city’s history. One of the most visible, memorable presentations of that phenomena in popular culture was the song and movie, “Meet Me in St. Louis”:

Lyrics of “Meet me in St. Louis”:

When Louis came home to the flat,
He hung up his coat and his hat,
He gazed all around, but no wifey he found,
So he said “where can Flossie be at?”
A note on the table he spied,
He read it just once, then he cried.
It ran, “Louis dear, it’s too slow for for me hear,
So I think I will go for a ride.”

CHORUS
“Meet me in St. Louis, Louis,
Meet me at the fair,
Don’t tell me the lights are shining
any place but there;
We will dance the Hoochee Koochee,
I will be your tootsie wootsie,
If you will meet in St. Louis, Louis,
Meet me at the fair.”

The dresses that hung in the hall,
Were gone, she had taken them all;
She took all his rings and the rest of his things;
The picture he missed from the wall.
“What! moving!” the janitor said,
“Your rent is paid three months ahead.”
“What good is the flat?” said poor Louis, “Read that.”
And the janitor smiled as he read.

CHORUS

You can find another musical number of the film here. The movie was released in 1944 at the height of World War II. I believe it was part of a focused effort on the part of the film studios to offer the public light fare to take their minds off the horrible scenes of the news reels (from which the public got their news in the form of moving pictures prior to the age of wide spread use of televisions).

You can see the film’s trailer here.

 

The darker side of St. Louis, the gritty urban existence of African Americans living in crowded often unsanitary conditions in the soot and smoke coated city is captured in W.C. Handy’s classic song, “St. Louis Blues.” My understanding is that he composed the song while living on the streets of the city and sleeping at night beneath the Eads Bridge.

Here’s a rare clip of Bessie Smith from the movie St. Louis Blues (1929) singing this song with an immense feeling for the blues:

Lyrics of “St. Louis Blues” by W.C. Handy:

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

 

You can see the movie’s opening scenes here which sets the scene with music, gambling and coarse English dialect.

Interestingly, each song deals with the theme of men and women running off from one another. Besides suggesting the pain of losing love, they both reference relatively new modes of transportation taking their lovers away. In the first, the electric lights of the fair are part of the glamor and excitement that spurred the young woman to run off, while the second focuses on the darkness that arrives with sundown.

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