This song, written by Billy Strayhorn, was supposedly inspired by a painting Strayhorn saw while on tour in Europe. He had never seen Chelsea Bridge himself. If he had, he might have realized that the painting didn’t depict the Chelsea Bridge at all, but Battersea Bridge, just a little way up the river.
But I’m okay with that, because Chelsea Bridge has a far more interesting story behind it.
The first incarnation, built in the 1850s, was originally named Victoria Bridge, because apparently there weren’t already enough things in the world named after Queen Victoria. However, concerns over its structural strength led to its re-naming as Chelsea Bridge, the logic being that a collapse would bring undue besmirching to Queen Victoria’s name.
As London grew and automobiles began to replace carriages on city streets, the decision was made to re-build the bridge as a ‘self-anchored suspension bridge.’ It opened in 1937 and stands there still. The self-anchoring meant that the cables supporting the road wouldn’t need to rely on the unstable London clay to stay firm. It was the first such bridge in Britain.
When Strayhorn wrote this song in 1941, the bridge was narrowly escaping destruction by German bombs, and by the time Tommy Flanagan made this recording in 1957, it had become a notorious motorcycle drag racing spot.
A few years ago, I went over the bridge on a city bus. I didn’t know what it was at the time, but I remember liking it. There’s something about the design and the colour scheme that I love; it’s a small bridge that’s trying to look bigger than it is. Like a child’s toy come to life.
So I’m glad Strayhorn got his bridges mixed up. This one deserved a song.
What makes this a beautiful song:
2. Each time the piano plays the main melody, it moves into the line by way of a swift chromatic climb. Makes me picture the swooping line of suspension cables.
3. At 2:45, it suddenly shifts into double-time, like an excited kid. Structurally, this point in the song is the bridge, which is awesome for obvious reasons.
Recommended listening activity:
Sketching your favourite bridge from memory.