Monday, March 20, 2017
The Original Blues: The Emergence of the Blues in African American Vaudeville 1899 -1926
The Original Blues: The Emergence of the Blues in African American Vaudeville 1899 -1926
by Lynn Abbott & Doug Seroff
University of Mississippi Press: Jackson MS
2017: 420 + viii
This is the third in a trilogy of volumes in which authors Abbott & Seroff chronicle the development of African-American Popular Music. The earlier volumes explored previously in of "Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889-1895," and "Ragged but Right: Black Traveling Shows, 'Coon Songs,' and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz." This is a textbook size book, handsomely printed and designed. The main body of text is 309 pages long and there are over 70 pages of end-notes (over 2000 end-notes) along with a bibliography and general index. The extent and amount of end-notes should provide an idea how thoroughly researched this volume is and the end-notes are not simply citations, but link some of performers and songs they performed on the stage to artists and recordings when such music was in fact recorded commercially at a later time.
In the acknowledgement, the authors note that their work is a detailed account of the appearance and popularization of the blues on the black and professional stage as they trace the emergence of African-American vaudeville stage out of the minstrelsy in the age of Jim Crow and segregation. It is a story of African-American artists telling their own story, even when still employing some of the conventions of the minstrel stage such as blackface. When doing so, the artists and comedians attempted to subvert the original white supremacist theme. Furthermore, the creation of theaters for African-Americans to enjoy their music and comedy was liberating. There was a certain jarring in reading some of the descriptions of the performers, even in African American newspapers like the Indianapolis Freeman, as "coon shouters," and the use of the term "coon song" as a description of the some of the pre-blues material.
The first chapter takes us through the emergence of Southern vaudeville in cities such as Houston; Galveston, Jacksonville; Pensacola; Tampa: Frenendina; Savannah; Macon; Louisville; New Orleans, Memphis and Atlanta, with early establishments serving as both saloons and theaters. The principals behind such ventures, their place in the community as well as the performers, and the character of what the shows were are considered along with advertisements and photographs of some of the facilities. Some of the reports and advertisements even listed the programs presented with songs and acts enumerated.
I found the discussion of the creation and operation of Lincoln Park in New Orleans fascinating. In its early days, The John Robinchaux Orchestra was resident along with a variety of acts such as (in 1905) Madame Magladene Tartt, better known as the "Black Swan" singing operatic selections that are reported to have set the house crazy. There is an illustration of her from an advertisement for a 1911 Ryman Auditorium performance. Others performing included a husband and wife comedic team who also sang, along with contortionists and acrobats. Then there was the comedy team of Lew Kenner and John Lewis. Kenner has sung with a minstrel show getting encores for "I Got Mine," while Lewis started singing with a quartet before getting billed a great southern tenor, and the two eventually formed the Kenner and Lewis Amusement Company with sixteen performers who barnstormed the region as well as playing Lincoln Park, and also inaugurated the vaudeville stage at a competing Dixie Park.
After an interlude that examines briefly the emergence of African-American vaudeville in Chicago out of the city's saloon culture, we are introduced to "The Life, Death and Untold Legacy of Bluesman Butler "String Beans" May." In this lengthy chapter. the authors provide May's biography and an overview of his career and influence. May was born in Montgomery, Alabama, and the authors were fortunate enough to find someone who knew May, to provide background on May's family and his performance style. May left Montgomery with Benbow's Chocolate Drops, a southern road show that took residence in Pensacola, Florida and not long after taking resident there William and Gertrude Rainey came aboard. Early descriptions of May describe him as a funny man, but he was also a pianist of some reputation as well as a singer. It was in Pensacola that May's "String Beans" persona emerged and was becoming a favorite and known for singing the infectious "I've Got Elgin Movements in My Hip and Twenty Years Guaranteed," helped this "metaphor of clockwise hip action" become "entrenched in the blues tradition." The authors trace the succession of his stage partners, including one who he married and later separated from, along with accounts of his popularity as well as reviews of his performances in Chicago by one Sterling Russell, who was not receptive to certain vulgar aspects of the blues and southern vaudeville. As the authors note, his style of performance was "anathema to those accustomed to judging performers by conventional standards."
May's outrageous risqué comedy, blues songs, and suggestive eccentric dancing did not fit their concept of proper entertainment" (p.74). However String Beans clearly was a significant attraction who filled theaters and his songs included "The Sweetest Man in Town," and "Get You a Kitchen Mechanic. With his wife Sweetie May, they closed shows with "I'm Alabama Bound." The authors note that "Kitchen Mechanic" and Alabama Bound" were signature markers of the blues revolution. Others songs that would be echoed in recordings was Chris Smith's "Fishing," that would be recorded by Henry Thomas in 1928 and by the Loving Spoonful in the 1960s, and one of his other songs in his repertoire "Blind Man Blues" contained an interjection 'doggone my soul," found in numerous blues recordings are further descriptions of his piano playing, singing and dancing (often the term pianologue is used in describing his performances) and press reactions as well as his responses to what he viewed as unjust criticisms.
May died as a result of a 'hazing accident' at an Masonic lodge that was not a general Masonic fraternity, but an independent one of local recognition in Jacksonville, Florida. It has led to a gap in the historiography of the blues that the authors that despite the fact he was the first national blues star cannot be simply filled. As they note, the realities of the recording industry at the time left no trace of what his music sounded like and unfortunately he never copyrighted his compositions. We can only speculate what he may have sounded like just like one wonders what the mythical Buddy Bolden's cylinder sounds like. Abbott and Seroff speculate on why he disappeared from the historical record noting some of his contemporaries were jealous of him and his popularity. The last portion of this chapter is an attempt to show the influence of the songs associated with him through examining recordings by others made long after he passed.
For all his fame in his lifetime, Abbott and Seroff note that String Beans was still a blackface comedian with a skill set tailored to the vaudeville stage as talented as he may have been, even if he made blues his specialty. The next chapter focuses on some of the other male blues pioneers, few of which, because of attrition, recorded, leading to the view that the classic vaudeville blues was a primarily female art form. Some of these like Kid Love and H. Franklin 'Baby" Seals," began as piano players in the pit of Houston Theaters which served as an incubator of early blues piano. In fact in Houston, Seals was on piano on a bill that included future blues recording artist Viola McCoy. Later he would be part of a husband and wife team with Little Baby Floyd Fisher. Kid Love and his wife performed "The Grizzly Bear Rag" and "Elgin Movements" with similar lyrics to String Beans, which they steadfastly claimed to have originated. He unfortunately died in 1913 at the age of 35 after having moved from playing blackface comedy on a minstrel show in 1904 to performing on the southern vaudeville stage when he passed.
While death ended Love's career, Seals and Fisher's career is traced including his protestations against the racial abuses in the old south as well as what he felt were unfounded criticisms directed against southern vaudeville. In Chicago, after playing at the Monogram Theater, Seals did a week at the Virginia Theater before white audiences. Seals became known for his composition,'"Sing Them Blues" that was published in 1912 as "Baby Seals Blues" and may be the earliest vocal blues published as sheet music. It was taken up by fellow southern vaudevillians although there were not many complete recordings of it (the authors cite recordings by Charles Anderson as "Sing 'Em Blues" and Ida Cox as "Mama Doo Shee Blues") although signature phrases from the song were sampled in numerous recordings including those by Sara Martin, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Peg Leg Howell and others including Memphis Slim's fifties recording, "The Comeback." Seals earned a reputation as a writer of the blues but suddenly died at the end of 1915, the details of which remain mysterious. The authors do suggest that had he not died so young, he might well have been a contender for the father of the blues.
The chapter then discusses Charles Anderson, described as a tenor and yodeler, and in 1913 "Baby Seals Blues" was the first blues in his repertoire which he would record in 1923 at the start of his Okeh recording career. He apparently also introduced Handy's "St. Louis Blues" in vaudeville and discussion indicates blues became a more important part of his repertoire. The chapter also introduces us to other acts including Johnny Woods and his dummy Little Henry who was presented as a "drunken-hearted, blues singing vagabond."
Having presented the early Male performers who played a major role in the blues emergence on the Vaudeville stage, Abbott and Seroff turn attention to women. The first significant section is dedicated to Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith and while detailing their performances on tent shows and theaters, certain myths including the one that Smith was Rainey's protege is discredited as the music transitioned from a transitional style of vocal ragtime into the blues. Smith's vaudeville career was fully under way by 1909, but in contrast to blues lore that Rainey took Smith under her wing, the authors relate that in 1910 Smith did perform with the Raineys, "The collaboration was brief and did not end well."
They recount how Smith was with the Raineys for an engagement at the Pekin Theater in Memphis, but after week four she had been replaced by Laura Smith, another future blues recording artist. There paths did not cross again until 1917, but the so-called apprenticeship lasted less than four weeks (pp.164-165). The ups and down of their respective careers are detailed along with bits of their repertoire such as the performance of "Lovie Joe" by Joe Jordan and Will Marion Cook by Smith, her partnership with Wayne Burton (which ended in 1913) with increasing recognition of Smith's singing, and the bumpy reception they initially received when appearing in front of Northern audiences ("they may have been too unpolished"). Smith is credited in 1913 with singing a proto-blues, the same year that Ma Rainey is reported as singing a blues and the book traces the increasing use of blues in describing their performances. As documented here, by the time both recorded in the 1920s, they were very experienced performers who had transitioned from the ragtime songs of a decade early into the blues.
Other women discussed in the chapter include Victoria Liston (noted for her rendition of "Titanic" and "Casey Jones") Laura Smith (who had performed "Baby Seals Blues" and would record "Don't You Leave Me Here" a version of "Alabama Bound"); Ora Criswell who never recorded; Trixie Smith, who had begun as a blackface comedienne and would become the first southern vaudeville blues artist to record (for Black Swan); and Estelle Harris (who was one of the first to be identified as singing a blues, but more usually described as a a rag song shouter. She may have recorded for the Pathe Record Company in 1923). In this material there is a discussion of the blackface characters that women on the southern vaudeville stage might be expected to play including "Crow Jane" and "Black Sis Hopkins," and the "Crow Jane" character is one referenced in a number of blues including that by Skip James in 1965.
One important point made is that "the black vaudeville theater entertainment for a black audience enabled the full creative development of the blues. Insular black theater entertainment was a liberating phenomenon for performers. Unconstrained by what white theater goers were prepared to accept, their blues spoke directly to African-Americans. Audiences felt validated and empowered. The "birth of the blues manifested artistic, commercial and political motives." One consequence of the cultural impact of the blues was the term "coon shouter," descended into the dustbin of history as the blues gained acceptance. (p.175).
After an interlude on the theater circuits and the formation and decline of the T.O.B.A. circuit, the author's final Chapter focuses on "The Commercialization of the Blues: 1920-1926," as the shift of the music north but the blues here were as more jazzy form of 'polite syncopation' as opposed to the bawdier blues heard in the southern vaudeville stage pioneered by String Beans. The legendary musical "Shuffle Along" was also a vehicle in which the blues was filtered and which early stars Gertrude Saunders and Florence Mills performed in with Saunders recording songs from the show. Edith Wilson, one of the first artists to record blues after Mamie Smith's pioneering recordings is described as jazzy interpretations of the blues representing a style suiting the New York market as were most of the first wave of artists that recorded blues in 1921 and 1922, a full year before Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and others would set foot in a studio.
In addition to Broadway and recordings the authors discuss the Burlesque Stage as another vehicle for the mainstreaming, then turn mull fully with the recording of the blues starting with a brief discussion of Black Swan Records who recorded Trixie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Ethel Waters and others with some focus on Waters career in this time as she toured with Fletcher Henderson. Black Swan had financial difficulties that led to its essentially being taken over by Paramount. Okeh's recording activities and those of artists such as Mamie Smith and Sarah Martin are discussed as are that of Butterbeans and Susie (whose performances influenced by those of String Beans and Sweetie May of a decade before). The signing of Bessie Smith and Clara Smith by Columbia Records was also significant as is the fact Smith in Birmingham hawked recordings at her performances. The role of the T.O.B.A. also played a significant part in promoting race record stars. Ma Rainey herself started recording for Paramount in 1923, although the advertising by Paramount were the ones that credited her as the "Mother of the Blues." One curious aspect of the marketing of the new stars was to suggest they were fresh faces, including examples relating to Bessie Smith, including an incredible depiction by a T.O.B.A. news column of a 1925 visit to Chattanooga, Tennessee, her home town as her first there. After discussing the relationship of the T.O.B.A. and the blues recording stars, the final pages of the chapter (and text) discuss the emerge of the guitar playing blues artist with the concluding paragraphs making an effort to link the blues of the piano playing blues star String Beans with Blind Lemon Jefferson, the first popular blues star of the country blues.
This review only hints at the richness of the materials in this volume "The Original Blues" is a remarkable work that takes us from the minstrel stage to the vaudeville stage and the emergence of blues in this theatrical and performance world. It sheds new light on the emergence of the blues, and artists and performers whose names and music who have been obscured for a variety of reasons, along with the institutions that made the emergence of this music possible. There are numerous illustrations including reproductions of advertisements and photos of the performers, along with the extensive end notes for the text. This superb book is among the most important recent books on blues and African-American music history.
I purchased this.