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W.C. Handy’s Classic "Saint Louis Blues" for Solo Guitar

Welcome to "That Can Be Arranged," my first installment of a series on arranging for solo guitar. In this series we will learn by playing full arrangements and by looking at the harmony and arranging techniques used within each piece. In this first installment we’re going to take a look at the life of W.C. Handy and his most famous composition, “Saint Louis Blues.”

William Christopher Handy was born in 1873 in Florence, AL, and died of pneumonia in 1958 in Harlem, NY. Over twenty-five thousand people attended his funeral and over one hundred and fifty thousand filled the New York streets to pay their respects. W.C. Handy was a superstar of his time and one of the most beloved musicians and composers of his day.

His most famous composition, “Saint Louis Blues” was written in 1914. Bessie Smith’s 1925 Columbia version with Louis Armstrong is considered to be one of the finest recordings of the 1920s. The movie Saint Louis Blues, based on Handy's life, was made in 1958, the year he died. It starred Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Mahalia Jackson, Pearl Bailey, Cab Calloway, and Eartha Kitt. I highly recommend seeing it; the musical performances gave me goose bumps!

Thoughts on Arranging
While it is important to study harmony and have a command of the fingerboard, nothing can replace imagination. It is my belief that imagination is often crushed by stuffy teachers who wouldn’t know a creative thought if it slapped them. Regardless of your level of skill or harmonic knowledge, I encourage all of you to experiment, to be playful and to imagine. You do not need anyone's permission or approval—just do it! We teach harmony because it can be taught. We can not teach imagination. As I read more on Handy’s life, I was inspired to take a second look at an earlier arrangement, and feeling more of a connection to his music, I threw it out and started over. The result is something more connected to the flesh and bone of the man. It is a reminder that music is more than a lead sheet.

A Topographical Map of Saint Louis... Blues
“Saint Louis Blues” is a classic example of a twelve bar blues. In its simplest form a twelve bar blues is based on three chords: E7, A7 and B7, or the familiar 1-4-5 family (thinking in numbers is a great help, especially when playing in new key centers):

E7 (1) / / / A7 (4) / / / E7 / / / E7 / / / A7 / / / A7 / / / E7 / / / E7 / / / B7 (5) / / / A7 / / / E7 / / / E7 / B7 /

You can play the song in its simple form, or you can spice it up by adding new changes to the twelve bar structure. These new chord changes often do not totally replace the original chord but are added in what is called a split bar. This is nothing more than playing two chords for two beats each, in place of the original chord for four beats. I’ve put the split bars into brackets: E7- [ A7-A#dim] [E7- F7] E7- A7- [A7-A#dim] [E7-D7] C#7- F#7- B7- [E7-C#7] [F#7-B7]. You still end up with twelve bars, but with more harmonic interest.

You often hear jazz and blues musicians approach the target chord from a half step below or above. This half step approach can be a full two beats or played only on beat four. An example from a half step above would be [E7 - B%7] A7. Play the B%7 on beat four passing into the A7. An example of approaching from a half step below would be [E7- A%7] A7. Approaching the target chords from a half step below or above opens many harmonic doors for comping.

Harmonic rhythm is the pulse at which the harmony changes. It does not take a Mozart to understand that eight beats of any one chord can grow old. Likewise, I’ve heard some jazz guitarists put a new chord on every quarter note; and that also grows old and sounds like an intellectual exercise.

The Arrangement
For this article we will take a look at some of the overall elements that went into the A section of “Saint Louis Blues.” Chord symbols have been added to the music for harmonic reference and do not reflect fingerings. If the chord has an alternate bass, you will see what is called a slash chord. The symbol looks something like this: E7/G# or C7/E. The second half of the symbol indicates the bass note.

When playing the blues, you want to play the “blue note.” You’ll see this in the very first chord of the intro. The “blue note” is the #9 played against a dominant 7 chord. Some think of this note as a minor third. It is more accurate to call it #9 since the chord has a major third in it. This note comes from the blues scale.

Some bullet points you see in the arrangement are: grace notes, triplets, anticipations of the beat, contrary motion, filler licks, half step approach, and tritone 7 chords. I will point out a few measures where these devices happen.

Grace notes: These are quick notes added for color and have no rhythmic value of their own. They are usually played as slurs. You’ll see these in measures 6, 10, 11, 14, 19, 22, 23, 25, 26 and 27.

Triplets: I just cannot play the blues without triplets! It’s a very piano-like device. Tripletsare a group of three notes played in the time of two. You’ll see these in measures 4, 8, 11, 16, 20, 21, 22, 23, 27 and 28.

Anticipations: These are sometimes referred to as a “push,” which is a description of what is happening. Most often, the anticipations are played on the upbeat and tied to the following downbeat. Sometimes, such as in measure 26, the chord is not tied and a rest is in place of the downbeat. Anticipations can be single notes, chords or bass notes. You’ll see many in this arrangement. Contrary Motion: An example of contrary motion is found in measure 16. Contrary motion is two or more musical lines moving in opposite directions.

Filler Licks: One of the first signs of a boring arrangement is dead air! Learn to play little melodic fragments that fill the dead space between the melodic activity. This dead space can also be filled with bass lines and or chords. See measures 8, 9, 16, 21, 28 and 29.

Half Steps: One of the more colorful half step connections in this arrangement happens on beat four in measure 21. You’ll see A%7 leading into A7 in measure 22. Melodic and chordal half steps happen frequently in this arrangement.

Tritone 7ths: Pianists have used this device for decades. In the guitar world, Lenny Breau was one of the first to use this sound. The name tritone comes from the interval distances of a raised 4th. They are dominant 7 chords that only use the 3rd and b7 intervals (no root). This interval can also be inverted to b7 and 3rd.

If you have an interest in arranging, go for it! I promise you will get better with each attempt. Trust your ear—if it sounds good it is good.

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