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It’s the 1920s, prohibition has kicked in, jazz bands are playing Chicago speakeasys, this is the year the revolutions around the world are matched by a revolution in music, but hold on – wasn’t this all done a few years ago? Are we not already firmly in the jazz age? Well, yes and no. 1917-1919 is an era of its own, a mini preview jazz age if you like, bands playing as raucously as they can with as many novelty sound effects as they can feasibly cram in there, often with very enjoyable results, but something usually considered essential has been missing – the flavour we usually call “the blues” or later “soul.”
The story of the blues as popularly understood involves pre-Civil-War slave chants and proto-gospel singing gradually mutating into a formalised style of guitar music played by poor blind black men in the Mississipi Delta. While some parts of this are in some ways accurate, as an origin story it is not only incorrect, but erases the women who should, if anything, be at the very centre of the story. So, let’s try to redress that, a bit.
To start at the beginning, the roots of the blues do indeed seem to lie with the songs of the slaves, but as far as documented history is concerned, the more important immediate antecedent is the music of the stages of black vaudeville in the southeast USA in the first two decades of the century. This was black pop music, undocumented by the upper-middle-class businessmen of New York, who would rather travel around the world than go down to Georgia. Much of the music played in these places was written and published elsewhere, including in New Orleans and Tin Pan Alley in New York. The idea of putting the word ‘blues’ in the title of a song dates back to at least 1908, with Antonio Maggio’s ‘I Got The Blues’ – but the craze for naming your song “The [something] Blues” doesn’t seem to exactly indicate a shift in the music being played. Many of these songs, like “Memphis Blues” and “Dallas Blues” were ragtime pieces – others were simply pop songs – but it wasn’t until songs like W.C. Handy’s “St Louis Blues” and “Yellow Dog Blues” began to be repurposed as jazz numbers that the association with this new wave of music became fixed.
The “blues” which appears apparently fully-formed in this mix is from a different, but connected strand. The earliest signs of this are perhaps in 1902, when Ma Rainey “The Mother of the Blues” wrote her first song about a woman having lost her man. Her performances on the “tent show circuit” inspired a host of copycats, and by the 1910s even Tin Pan Alley writers were putting together similar numbers, for white women singers to perform in character. Many were inspired to start similar acts, including Mamie Smith, a young singer who performed at clubs in Harlem.
As the initial wave of dixieland jazz crested and began to recede, W. C. Handy found himself to be one of the country’s most in-demand songwriters, and in a position to lobby record companies to record music for the new generation of black consumers who owned phonographs. Mamie Smith was the first to be recorded. On August 10th 1920 (her second session) she was was joined by a group of musicians quickly christened the “Jazz Hounds” and performed a Perry Bradford song titled “Crazy Blues”
It’s hard to overstate what an impact this recording had. No longer was the sound of black America constrained by the expectations of the white upper-middle-class recording market. The record sold over 75,000 copies within a month, and its label Okeh Records realised there was a huge market out there for what it termed “race records.” Initially these were largely copycat pieces from similar singers, but it would only be a few years until this meant Louis Armstrong, Clarence Williams, Lonnie Johnson and King Oliver. The copycat pieces weren’t at all bad either, as there was quite the stock of talent out there for those asking for a blues singer with a jazz backing band. As well as Mamie there would soon be recordings from Bessie Smith, Lucille Bogan, Sara Martin, Victoria Spivey and Ma Rainey – this is an era now known for “classic female blues” – a genre which certainly deserves to have a less pedantic name.
Crazy Blues, then; a genuine watershed moment, and a genuinely brilliant record.
0:00 :17 Mamie Smith & Her Jazz Hounds – Crazy Blues
0:03 :44 Yerkes’ Happy Six – Shake Your Little Shoulder
0:06 :33 Lucille Hegamin – Jazz Me Blues
0:08 :58 Paul Whiteman – Wang Wang Blues
0:12 :15 Marion Harris – I Ain’t Got Nobody
0:14 :28 George Gershwin – Swanee
0:16 :03 Al Jolson – Swanee
0:18 :37 All-Star Trio – Swanee
0:19 :33 Louisiana Five – Clarinet Squawk
0:22 :19 Wilbur Sweatman’s Original Jazz Band – Think of Me Little Daddy
0:23 :46 Arthur Collins – Old Man Jazz
0:25 :55 George Hamilton Green Novelty Orchestra – Oriental Stars
0:28 :04 Ada Jones and Steve Porter – Backyard Conversation Between Mrs. Reilly and Mrs. Finnegan (Excerpt 1)
0:28 :16 Noble Sissle – Great Camp Meetin’ Day
0:30 :54 Rudy Wiedoeft + Orchestra – Saxema
0:33 :28 Milo Rega’s Dance Orchestra – Young Man’s Fancy
0:36 :33 Plantation Jazz Orchestra – Murder
0:39 :04 Aleister Crowley- The Call Of The First And Second Aethyr (Excerpt 1)
0:39 :23 Marika Papagika – O Marcos Botsaris
0:40 :33 Mozmar Caire Orchestra – Raks Baladi Hag Ibrahim (Country Dance)
0:43 :24 Original Dixieland Jazz Band – Soudan
0:46 :26 Aleister Crowley- The Call Of The First And Second Aethyr (Excerpt 2)
0:46 :55 Zeki Duygulu – Karciar Taksim
0:48 :00 Abe Schwartz – National Hora Pt.2
0:50 :27 Joseph Shlisky – Omar Rabi Elozor
0:53 :29 Kandel’s Orchestra – A Freilachs von Der Chuppe (A Happy Dance from the Wedding Ceremony)
0:55 :34 Mishka Ziganoff – Odessa Bulgar
0:56 :50 Columbia Saxophone Sextette – Crocodile
1:00 :08 Calvin Coolidge – Gov Coolidge for Vice President
1:00 :21 Art Hickman – Love Nest
1:01 :49 Mamie Smith – Don’t Care Blues
1:04 :46 Yerkes’ Novelty Five – Bo La Bo
1:06 :22 Raderman’s Jazz Orchestra – Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me
1:08 :32 Ted Lewis – When My Baby Smiles At Me
1:10 :09 Harry Raderman’s Jazz Orchestra – Peacock Walk
1:12 :52 Warren G Harding – Speech
1:13 :10 Bert Williams – When The Moon Shines on The Moonshine
1:15 :46 Max Fells’ Della Robbia Orchestra – La Veeda
1:18 :20 Orquesta Felipe Valdes – Bombo Camara
1:19 :37 Ben Hokea – Honolulu March
1:22 :11 Hawaiian Trio – Hawaiian Twilight
1:24 :51 All-Star Trio – Oh! By Jingo!
1:26 :47 Yerkes’ Blue Bird Orchestra – Scandal Walk
1:29 :39 Louisiana Five – Weeping Willow Blues
1:31 :44 George Gershwin – Singing The Blues
1:33 :28 Leopold Stokowski & The Philadelphia Orchestra – Beethoven Symphony no 8 in F Movement 2
1:36 :33 Will Fyffe – I Belong To Glasgow
1:40 :29 Carl Fenton – On Miami Shore (+ Rudy Wiedoeft)
1:42 :16 Ada Jones and Steve Porter – Backyard Conversation Between Mrs. Reilly and Mrs. Finnegan (Excerpt 2)