Two Kinds of Blue

Everyone who watches football, I suspect, watches it in the hope of catching a note in it that’s peculiar to themselves. I watch it wanting it to tell me that this is still a world in which the extraordinary can happen, to remind me, when I need reminding, that I’m here and alive and it’s worth it.

Everyone’s football note is different, but the game’s big enough to play them all sooner or later. The Daily Record serialised Graham Roberts’ violent memoirs a month ago; put next to Bobby Charlton’s gentlemanly recollections, the sheer breadth of just topflight football is immediately apparent.

I hear that note in music less often. There’s a kind of blazing high to a piece of wonderful skill that needs a different sort of record to what Nick Hornby has characterised as forty years of disastrous love affairs written up in a minor key. The music of the 1920s was badly recorded, but it had an extensive emotional range, and when everything came together, it told it well.

Badly recorded? it was often merely bad. But this isn’t: Philip Larkin called it “the hottest record ever” and he was right. I owned the 78 for a while, and couldn’t find a needle quiet enough to cope with it. This is the version, poorly transcribed onto LP. You have to strain to feel the warmth and energy and ecstacy. St Louis Blues, from Louis Armstong’s annus mirabilis, 1929 New York. The greatest place, the greatest music, the Twist and Shout of the better half of the 20th century.


But St Louis Blues doesn’t inspire homesickness in quite the way this next song – song? try whistling it… does.

The clip it’s in is from Ken Burns’ fantastic Jazz series, and shows what you might call the “classic” idea of pre-War black America. St Louis Blues brings Ryan Giggs to mind, or George Best. West End Blues just reminds me of West End Blues.

West End Blues tops and tails Dear Philip, Dear Kingsley , but neither writer mentions it anywhere in their work. Well, they were Count Basie fans. What can you do? and such a stupid name. Louis Armstrong seems to have resisted the temptation to call himself King, Count, Duke, 50c..

I don’t think that anyone could argue for rock having done anything as beautiful and complex, let alone within three minutes. Or so soon: this was recorded in 1928, an adolescent’s lifespan after even the most basic jazz began to be played to the poor bloody infantry.

It’s quite different from the first song. That slow-stepping, melancholy beginning, and then the lazy-afternoon core, somehow working itself into ecstacy before winding down. All in three minutes. Form and restriction.


In most of the classic arts, the 20th century began by blaming the form for the increasing aridity of the content, and what followed was Kiki’s Paris. In football, we put the whole thing onto poor Alf Ramsey and the wingless wonders. But all form asks for is talent. You can write off English poetry just by removing the respective reigns of Elizabeth I and George IV.

Football has this over music: we remember the bad stuff with affection.


4 Replies to “Two Kinds of Blue”

  1. Well West End Blues is magnificent, of course. The St Louis is taken at somewhat of a gallop but that’s OK too.

    As to: You can write off English poetry just by removing the respective reigns of Elizabeth I and George IV. I don’t know if I am getting the degree of irony here quite right.

    You can write it off, of course, but you’d be a damn fool if you did whoever ‘you’ were. You’d miss out on Chaucer, the Jacobeans (by definition), Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Kit Smart, Tennyson, Thomas Hardy, Graves, Auden. I have left out Eliot there because ‘you’ would not count him as English. Swift is in however. He lived here, wrote here, was part of English life. Herbert and Donne did some of their best writing after she died too.

    ‘You’ may be overvaluing the Romantics too. Not by very much, just a touch.

  2. Well, my wife’s an expat American who wants a UK passport, so I’ll leave that Eliot “you” in the inverted commas, if I may.

    I don’t think my comment about Elizabeth and George is as careless as all that: the loss of Shakespeare and the Romantics does more than cut down Palgrave. And I don’t mean “ignore” those periods and those poets: I’m trying to imagine what English poetry looks like in a scenario where they haven’t happened at all. The Modernists put forth the idea that the traditional forms had burned themselves out by 1910 or so, but the idea, if it has any substance at all, would have been just as applicable to 1790 or 1560. But Shakespeare and the Romantics did happen, and by 1820 or 1616… well, obviously.

    The Great War is the obvious counterpoint, and in the interests of avoiding accusations of parochialism, I’ll step past Owen, Brooke and co. and simply say, Alan Seeger.

  3. Traditional forms? Eliot’s Whispers of immortality etc. The whole of Auden and MacNeice.

    I think the problem is with the word ‘traditional’ rather than with the word ‘form’ – a problem I have been trying to address the last few years. With some occasional success.

    There is also a problem with the word ‘Modernism’ because it assumes a kind of homogeneity that won’t quite hold. You can probably do it with architecture, but it’s harder with the other arts. That’s my guess at any rate.

  4. His Wild Man Blues is also pretty wonderful, and his hilarious 12th St Rag. But before your ’26 cut-off, there are lovely things such as the NORK’s Tin Roof Blues and Bix’s first recording of Royal Garden Blues, the one with the “flighted” solo. And the Oliver/Armstrong tracks and a couple of Jelly Roll’s piano solos, to mention just a few. Did Miff Mole record before ’26? If so, add almost anything with him.

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