Hear the First Recorded Blues Song by an African American Singer: Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” (1920)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Women of the Blues: Hear a Playlist of Great Blues Singers, from Bessie Smith & Etta James, to Bil­lie Hol­i­day & Janis Joplin

Women of Jazz: Stream a Playlist of 91 Record­ings by Great Female Jazz Musi­cians

Stream 35 Hours of Clas­sic Blues, Folk, & Blue­grass Record­ings from Smith­son­ian Folk­ways: 837 Tracks Fea­tur­ing Lead Bel­ly, Woody Guthrie & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Barry says:

    I see you left out the line about “Chi­na­man”; I should point out that New Orleans, the birth­place of Jazz, had a Chi­na­town that was knocked down by Roo­sevelt’s WPA, because PROGRESS! ;)

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