Great Depression, City Blues & St. Louis

The Great Depression of the 30s was devastating for America. It incorporated all the elements of a material, spiritual and moral disaster, impacting on the lives of millions of people.

In only a few month , starting from 1929, the whole country had to face the biggest social disaggregation in its history, going from a rich and expanding economy to a condition of poverty, food rationing, industrial bankruptcy and diffused crime.

Social disparities were making life harder and harder every day, the memories of the prosperous 20s were far and the conviction that “the business of America is business” was not so strong anymore.

It is in this context that, in the cities, the so called “house rent parties” started to be a response for the overly miserable living conditions that people had to face.
House rent parties, also known as “Too Tight Parties”, “Too Terrible Parties”, “Chitterlin’ Rag”, “Calico Hops”, “Kados”, “Skittles”, “House Shout”, “House Hops”, “Juggle and Struggle”, “Stomp”, “Breakdown”, “Boogie”, were organized on the day the rent was due to the landlord; the members of the household would invite neighbors and friends to participate for a 1$ ticket, this included live music and a jug of gin, and for the household, the ability to pay the rent.

Born under great misery, the rent parties were also a drain valve for the frustrations and neuroses of overcrowded ghetto life. The success of these parties led to a form of management of apartments specifically for this purpose, that took the name of “Good Times Flats” or “Buffet Flats”, flourishing of prostitution, gambling and liquor smuggling.

Slowly, but steadily, the Great Depression also changed the aspects of the Blues, known to those days.
Classic blues was somehow becoming anachronistic and the new times were in need of something different. The shortage of money, transformed the music industry: less known countryside musician were no longer given a one chance to get to recording studios to record their music and from that moment on blues became dominated by professional artists, almost stars, who were living in the cities, close to their place of work, the recording studios.

Winter view of “Welcome to St. Louis” sign at entrance to the Municipal Bridge, ca. 1917

St. Louis had a long history of blues music: blues was so much part of daily life that it was almost not considered as a special music genre. Music was connected, on one side, to the superficial world of night clubs and on the other to the working people, but its popularity became a thing in ragtime years. Among all the Mid-West cities, St. Louis was the one famous for being the place to be, where one could dance to the cakewalk at the sound of the ragtime piano.

For a whole generation the city kept its tradition of blues music for piano, being at a crossroad for migration routes, with streams of people from southern states continuously flowing to the city, contributing massively to the great variety and musical richness of St. Louis.

All of a sudden one could find barrelhouse and boogie pianists playing with ragtime guitarists and gut bucket trombonists for the “low-life blues” in Deep Morgan, you could find influences from the sounds of New Orleans, big stars like Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith and Ethel Water playing in town theaters or Jelly Roll Morton on the boats on the river. If you wanted to have a “big chance” in music, you wanted to be in St. Louis at some point.

St. Louis boogie style of blues continued to be popular all throughout the 30s, intersecting with the swinging blues jazz styles that were emerging in the Midwest. At the same time, a rougher and more rural style of blues, incorporating harmonicas and slide guitar, was beginning to be heard in the city as well, giving life to trios and small groups.

At the end of the 30s, the artists that made St. Louis popular started to travel more frequently to Chicago, to recording studios and, quite soon after that, most of them had left to move to Chicago, where the action seemed to be. It was only in the 50s, with the spreading of boogie piano for rock n roll that the St. Louis style had a revival, but certainly the focus had shifted to different areas.

While researching  on this topic however something came clear to my mind: other big cities became more popular, but for sure St. Louis didn’t contribute less to the music. Little I knew of several of the artists I came across in my research and this is just a first step to get to know the history and music better!

Sources:                                  

  • Giles Oakley, “The Devil’s Music: A History Of The Blues”
  • Harriet Ottenheimer, “The Blues Tradition in St. Louis.” 

Published by Bibi

Blues dancer, insegnante e dj - Viaggiatrice compulsiva - Amante della vita, della natura e dei gatti!

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