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The St. Louis Blues

I’m too often startled by how much I’ve yet to learn about subjects I’ve covered throughout my life-for example, the blues. Along with writing sections on the blues in my books, I’ve recorded sessions with Otis Spann, Memphis Slim and Lightnin’ Hopkins. But never before have I learned so much about St. Louis’ powerful and influential role in the blues and American music as in Kevin Belford’s vividly illustrated Devil at the Confluence: The Pre-War Blues Music of St. Louis Missouri (Virginia Publishing, St. Louis).

Belford, a widely published freelance illustrator, has done monumental research in archives, city records, recording company logs and cemetery books, and has interviewed numerous musicians influenced by St. Louis’ blues greats. The result of all his work is a largely unknown-until now-microcosm of blues lives and music that is already a collector’s item I’m thinking of putting in my will.

He only had enough money to have 1,500 printed in 2009, of which 750 have been sold. But as word gets around of this large-scale book with such imposing physical presence that a Kindle simply can’t do it justice, it may not be a collector’s item for long. One well-known voice from inside the book is that of the homeless W.C. Handy telling of first hearing the blues in 1892 on the levee in St. Louis:

“While sleeping on the cobblestone in St. Louis, I heard shabby guitarists picking out a tune called ‘East St. Louis.’ It had numerous one-line verses and they could sing it all night.” On the streets of the city, he saw and heard a drunken woman in more than physical pain, muttering, “My man’s got a heart like a rock cast in de sea.” He asked another passing woman what that meant. “Lawd, man, it’s hard and gone so far from her she can’t reach it.”

As Belford notes, “I didn’t intend to answer the question, ‘Where were the blues born?’ Instead I wanted to ask the question, ‘What blues were born in St. Louis?’ and show the original blues artists, who they were and what they did so that fans could know what they did and non-fans could be led to discover their music.”

But where the devil did the title come from? Belford cites the story in Pete Weldon’s 1996 essay, “Hellhound on His Trail: Robert Johnson,” in which Son House speculated Johnson had sold his soul to the Devil to become the preeminent bluesman. With that in mind, Belford mythologized the Devil at “the confluence of rivers, roads, rails and minds [that] met in St. Louis.” And so “The Devil came to the confluence, and made a deal with St. Louis.”

I guess Belford was also thinking of a blues singer in his book, whose record I bought when I was 14 using my pay as a fruit wagon delivery boy during the Great Depression: Peetie Wheatstraw. I was furtively drawn to his sobriquets: “The Devil’s Son-in-Law” and the “High Sheriff of Hell.” I didn’t let my parents see the record lest they be troubled by whom I was consorting with. Peetie’s records, writes Belford, sold well in the 1930s, “released as singles over time and not back-to-back on an album.” That’s how I could afford one.

A few others in the book I knew of, like Lonnie Johnson and Victoria Spivey, but nearly all the rest were new to me, and Belford brings them back to life in the stories he tells about them. There’s W.G. Haenschen, for instance: “A year before history says that the first jazz band recorded in New Orleans, a St. Louis group recorded a song called ‘Sunset Medley.’ The 1916 recording was by St. Louisans W. Gus Haenschen and T.T. Schiffer … an interesting piece of transitional evidence, hinting of things to come and revealing a ragtime-to-jazz link. Author David Wondrich notes that ‘They were working out how to blue-swerve ragtime and their own [blues] without any help from New Orleans.'”

In another section, Belford describes his main impetus for writing the book: “There is an odd notion that American music is linked to the Mississippi River and that a timeline of the history of American music can be illustrated with a map of that river. The theory holds that jazz started in New Orleans and the blues were started by slaves in the Delta. Those styles then moved north when the musicians relocated there, spreading their unique sound. … [I]n a more realistic metaphor of American music, the great river would be the artistic stream with many branches and tributaries influencing its flow.”

He emphasizes: “Adding the St. Louis part of the blues story should not mean rewriting American music history. But despite its importance, the city is rarely credited. The pre-jazz and pre-blues style of ragtime is acknowledged to have blossomed in St. Louis, and scholars also agree that the syncopated rhythm and improvisation of late 1800s ragtime led to the creation of jazz and blues in the early 1900s.

“But I hope the book can educate and raise awareness of the fact that … St. Louis musicians have consistently been a part of every major trend in American music, [including] the blues that became rhythm and blues and rock and roll and eventually evolved into our current musical styles.”

And, of course, St. Louis nurtured such international jazz icons as Clark Terry and Miles Davis. The continuing kick in this book is seeing the faces of names you may have never heard of, as you dig their music in the inserted CD produced by the legendary Chicago historian and record producer Bob Koester, The St. Louis Blues Legends Delmark Collection. These collector’s items didn’t need the Devil to be as perennially involving as when they were originally created. And the sound is like new.

I first learned of this book from Koester’s Jazz Record Mart’s Rhythm & News, and I ordered it from that publication. I’m grateful to Bob for bringing me into this newly charted territory of our music-and for much else through the years from his invaluable Delmark Records. And wait until you see the photos and other memorabilia, and Belford’s own art, in this addition to the living music history. I’d love to see a book of this quality and depth about the history of jazz in Boston, where the music became an essential regenerative part of my life from the time I was 11.

Nat Hentoff can be contacted at 212-366-9181.

Originally Published