Monday, June 9, 2008

Armstrong and Arlen, blues and weather

Singer Ethel Waters famously described songwriter Harold Arlen (1905–1986) as "the Negro-est white man I ever knew." Such songs as "Blues in the Night" (lyrics by Johnny Mercer), "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues," and "Ill Wind" (lyrics by Ted Koehler) suggest Arlen's strong affinity with African-American musical tradition.

And then there's "Stormy Weather" (also with Koehler), which Waters introduced at the Cotton Club in 1933. I woke up yesterday morning realizing that the song's first three notes — "Don't know why" — are the first three notes of the opening ensemble chorus of the 1928 recording by Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five of King Oliver's "West End Blues." "West End Blues" is in E flat. Here's the start of "Stormy Weather," with the same intervals in G:

Armstrong's version of Oliver's tune adds a two-note pickup (the "Don't know" of the lyric) not found in Oliver's own 1928 recording. The three notes are then repeated (with different time values) in both "West End Blues" and "Stormy Weather" ("Don't know why," "there's no sun"). Was Arlen paying conscious homage to Armstrong? I doubt it. But unconscious homage is the best homage of all.

In 1929, Oliver recorded a remake of "West End Blues" that follows the contours of the Hot Five recording, with Louis Metcalf approximating Armstrong's trumpet. Oliver, Armstrong's mentor, was now emulating his former student.

Will Friedwald's Stardust Melodies: A Biography of Twelve of America's Most Popular Songs (New York: Pantheon, 2002) has a chapter on "Stormy Weather" (the source of the Waters quotation) that makes no mention of a "West End Blues" connection. So it may be that you heard it here first (though Elaine says that she thought of it a long time ago). What made me think of the connection? Stormy weather, perhaps.

(Thanks, Elaine, for the musical notation!)
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comments: 2

Anonymous said...

The first time I played "West End Blues" to someone, he said "They used this for 'Stormy Weather'."

Michael Leddy said...

Good ears. Thanks for reading and commenting, Anon.