Historian John Hope Franklin once described the decades from the end of slavery through the advent of Jim Crow as “The Long Dark Night” because of the legislative chicanery and extreme violence used to disenfranchise and dispossess African Americans after the failure of Reconstruction. It is during these years that the blues emerged from the rural South into the cities, and the age of the “race record” brought black music into popular culture in ways that irrevocably defined what the country sounded like.
The source of the blues, writ broadly, is the sufferings and strivings of those anonymous rural folk who transmitted their experiences through song, “whether in the cotton fields or in lumber camps, on the levees or in the shacks of field hands or housemaids,” as Dave Oliphant writes in Texan Jazz. But when it comes to naming early sources, the waters get murky. Jazz writer Ted Gioia refers to the period before the mid-1920’s as “the Dark Age of myth and legend” in blues history for its paucity of written detail.
We do know that blues songs gained much popularity throughout the first two decades of the 20th century, many of them penned and published by Memphis composer and “father of the blues,” W.C. Handy. These blues were first commodified and recorded in the 1910s for white audiences by white vaudeville singers like Nora Bayes and Marion Harris. It wasn’t until 1920 that a blues record by a black singer was recorded and released, “and in a sense it was happenstance,” says Angela Davis in the NPR segment below.
“Earlier in the year,” Davis explains, “[Ukranian-born singer] Sophie Tucker had been scheduled for a recording session but became ill and [blues songwriter] Perry Bradford managed to persuade Okeh Records to allow Mamie Smith to do the recording session instead.” And so we have at the top what Gioia calls the “breakthrough event” of Smith’s “Crazy Blues,” recorded on August 10, 1920, significant because “the first recording companies were reluctant to promote black music of any sort,” and then only when it was performed by white entertainers.
In the decade of “Crazy Blues,” that changed dramatically, as record companies realized a huge untapped market of talent and potential buyers in the working-class black community. “Crazy Blues” was a hit, selling 75,000 copies in its first month. This release and subsequent recordings by Mamie Smith eventually “led the way,” says Davis, “for the professionalization of black music for the black entertainment industry and indeed for the immense popularity of black music today.” Though not strictly a traditional blues, as Oliphant and Gioia both note, the song, and Smith, established an enduring template.
Mamie Smith had been a vaudeville performer, working since childhood as “an all around entertainer,” as the Library of Congress’s Michael Taft remarks on NPR. The Blues Encyclopedia points out that her theatrical background and flamboyant personality lent much to the “the archetypal ‘Queen of the Blues’ persona” inhabited by so many later singers. She was, we might say, the first in a long, distinguished line of songstresses, from Bessie Smith to Beyoncé, who delivered music of hardship and struggle with glamor, glitz, and swagger.