In my article — American Folklore and the Blues Black Cat Bone — we discussed the song “The Birth of the Blues” in the comments stream.  Today, as an important follow-up to that conversation, I want to take you a little deeper into the birth of “The Birth of the Blues” in performance because it is an interesting watershed song.

“The Birth of the Blues” was originally written by B.G. DeSylva, Lew Brown and Ray Henderson as part of the Broadway show, “George White’s Scandals of 1924.”  The song is more Big Band Swing than pure Blues — with lots of horns and heavy percussion — but the celebratory tone of the song demanded a non-blues context for performance.  You can’t have the depressive melody of a traditional Blues song — giving you the history of The Blues — because repression upon yearning cannot lift up the topic of joy.

The song was first published in 1926, and in the mid ’40s, Cab Calloway made the first recording with lyrics. As the song evolved and became popular, Frank Sinatra recorded it on the most albums and compilations — and damaged it the most in live performance — but Sammy Davis, Jr. owned the song outright in every respect.

Here is the incredible, timeless, lyric.  I love how the “Devil Note” is described in creation and how it becomes “The Blue Note.” I have emphasized that morphing below.

Oh, they say some people long ago
Were searching for a diff’rent tune
One that they could croon
As only they can
They only had the rhythm
So they started swaying to and fro
They didn’t know just what to use
That is how the blues really began
They heard the breeze in the trees
Singing weird melodies
And they made that the start of the blues

And from a jail came the wail
Of a down-hearted frail
And they played that
As part of the blues
From a whippoorwill
Out on a hill
They took a new note
Pushed it through a horn
‘Til it was worn
Into a blue note

And then they nursed it, rehearsed it
And gave out the news
That the Southland gave birth to the blues!

Songs change in performance and, “The Birth of the Blues” is a prime example of how an outstanding melody and lyric can have many lifetimes beyond the arc of the artists’ original intention.

Here’s the earliest recording of “Birth of the Blues” I could find.  This is a 1926 instrumental by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra and it is standard and straight-forward:

Here’s Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong in 1957 performing the song together live on television.  If you just listen, it sounds fine — but watching the two of them together adds a whole new layer of complication.

Sinatra seems ticked off the entire song and Louis appears to not really have any idea what to play or when to sing or where to go next.  The awkwardness of their performance is what makes this version so fascinating to watch.

Here’s an undiscovered gem from 1963.  Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and Dean Martin are caught — audio only — rehearsing the song.  It’s silly, a little wacky, and downright fun.

1965 brings you yet another strange iteration — with Sinatra again at the center of the storm — surrounded by Sammy Davis, Jr. and Dean Martin and, curiously enough, a singing Johnny Carson… who proves why television hosts should stick to speech and not sing:

Now we leap into the 1970’s for an instrumental starring legendary guitar greats Les Paul and Chet Atkins.  “The Birth of the Blues” gets a whole new level of respect and sophistication:

For my money, this performance by Sammy Davis, Jr. — during the 1987 Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon — is the penultimate performance of “The Birth of the Blues” that has been, and ever shall be, recorded.  Sammy is in his final prime.  Sadly, three years later, he’d be dead from throat cancer:

“The Birth of the Blues” is a classic song with a fantastic melody.  Here’s a performance by a young guitar player from March, 2010.  She’s honoring the Chet Atkins performance — but through her effort, a whole new generation can begin to know, and ultimately appreciate, the song anew:

The strength of “The Birth of the Blues” is in its elasticity.  It can take a Sinatra hacking and keep on singing.  The song works as a Big Band instrumental and also as a quiet, fingerpicked, masterpiece.

If you want to know The Blues, look at the melodic structure and lyric content of “The Birth of the Blues” — and you will begin to feel in your bones the real magic and passion of a classic, American, musical genre.

10 Comments

  1. Judging from this article, you’re clearly not one of those who think that the blues were “ruined” by becoming self-conscious. But do you have any thoughts on the subject of the blues going meta? I’ve always supposed that by the time the blues got recorded they were already at the stage of consciously defining themselves, but for us (who obviously weren’t there) to talk about “the blues” pre-recording is to talk about moonshine. (Not the good stuff.) Nevertheless, I know some people would call this awesome song corrupted because of the heavy big band influence.

    1. I think “The Birth of the Blues” is clearly a creative, reconstructed, romanticization of how the Blues were actually invented.

      Remember, the song was written for a Broadway audience and that mainstream taste sits in a New York theatre seat paying top dollar to be uplifted and inspired by song and not dragged down by cultural drama.

      The fact that jazz and swing were born from The Blues makes their turnaround to celebrate the “birth” of The Blues — using their own genre and song structure — is the genius of the song.