Was the Blues Born on a Vaudeville Stage?
BY MARK REYNOLDS
25 September 2017
The third volume in a comprehensive series on the roots of black pop sheds new light on the true birth of the blues.
We take black music for granted. Not its ability to rock us, soothe us, or otherwise move us, but its very existence.
As far back as most of us are likely to trace, there have always been artists doing amazing things and propelling their art forms, and us, forward. Before Beyoncé, for example, one might point to Mary J. Blige, and before her to Aretha Franklin, and before her to Dinah Washington. Before Kamasi Washington, Thundercat and the rest of the current Los Angeles-rooted jazz scene, one could point to the M-BASE collective in New York in the mid-‘80s (Steve Coleman, Cassandra Wilson, Greg Osby and others), or the birth of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago in the ‘60s, or maybe even the iconoclasts whose after-hours jam sessions in New York in the early ‘40s laid the foundation for bebop.
But even those top-of-mind trips, extending 70-plus years from front to back, assume some starting point somewhere. But they don’t establish one, not the one you find after you dig and dig until you arrive at an “a-ha!” moment and realize, after all the previous “a-ha!” moments you thought you’d found before, that this is the one that might really be it—as far as you can tell.
Since we’re generally too busy enjoying the music to wonder how it came to be, we owe Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff enormous gratitude for doing that digging for us. Instead of working backward from now, they identify a starting point when the world beyond black people first discovered black people’s music, and followed the sotry from there to show how both the music and industry took shape over the course of decades.
Their first effort, Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889-1895 (2002), combed black newspapers and other historical documents to tell the stories of the first black performers to capture the American imagination. It begins with the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a choir trying to keep its namesake college alive that became international stars, and moves through minstrelsy and brass bands into the ascent of ragtime. Their follow-up, Ragged But Right: Black Traveling Shows, “Coon Songs” and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz (2007), picked up the scent to trace how black pop evolved in the 1900s and 1910s, showing artists negotiating racist stereotypes and flipping those scripts on their own varying terms.
They could have sat on their laurels after either of those efforts, but there was seemingly too much still to uncover, too many dots to connect. Their research revealed the depth of the black music ecosystem, one that took shape in an almost entirely black universe parallel to the mainstream. Within that universe, black artists refined their craft and created opportunities for themselves and their colleagues, black entrepreneurs established performance venues, and black media reported the scene.
The third volume in what seems to be an accidental trilogy, The Original Blues: The Emergence of the Blues in African American Vaudeville 1899-1926, is their most expansive by time frame, and perhaps the most comprehensive by effect (its 309 pages of text contain 2,139 footnotes and citations, but who’s counting?). Not only does it take us chronologically from where Ragged But Right left off to the birth of the modern-day black music industry, it asserts two points that radically rearrange what we think we know about black music:
- Black creative and economic self-determination within the music industry didn’t begin with Chance the Rapper, or Prince, or even Motown.
2. Blues music likely didn’t begin when most of us think it did, whenever that was.
Tom Young worked between the acts and when he got done singing “The Blues” he had to hoist an umbrella to keep the money from raining on him.—An account from the 27 April 1912 Indianapolis Freeman of a performance in Jacksonville, Florida.
If you believe the hype, you’ll think the blues was born in 1903, when legendary songwriter W.C. Handy says he first heard something like it while waiting for a train. If you follow the recorded lineage, you’ll think the blues started in 1920, when Mamie Smith had the first hit record billed as blues music (“Crazy Blues”; her previous effort, “That Thing Called Love”, made her the first black woman to record her music).
Abbott and Seroff counter those assumptions by asserting the music arose from the Southern vaudeville circuit of the early 20th century. Vaudeville was less a style of performance than a packaging of performers—singers, comedians, a dramatic skit or two, some novelty acts—on an evening’s program of entertainment. The Original Blues traces the development of a network of venues from Kentucky through Florida where black performers plied their trade. Many of these venues were either owned or booked by black promoters, and black performers arranged their own tours throughout the circuit.
This circuit existed apart from the Northern performance circuit, dominated by the rich black entertainment scene in Chicago. As black performers made their names down south, they were able to connect gigs across both circuits and became de facto national stars.
But there was no radio back then, and hardly any blacks besides Bert Williams had been invited to make records. Coverage of black performance in black newspapers was critical to advancing reputations, advertising shows, and sometimes trading in beef. The Indianapolis Freeman was the main conduit at the time, via both columns and reviews by the ever-opinionated Lester Walton, arguably America’s first pop music critic of note, and submissions from out-of-state correspondents and performers acting as their own press agents.
The southern performers were considerably more ribald than the northern acts, a condition Walton didn’t much appreciate. Their jokes were more risqué, their dances more bawdy. Southern audiences loved that, but performers often found they needed to clean up their acts a bit when performing up north.
Into this bubbling-up-from-under world came Butler May, an irrepressible performer from Montgomery, Alabama. As a youth he gave piano concerts around town, playing on a piano in the back of a truck. He joined a black-owned road show troupe as a teenager and began developing an act and persona that would come to be known as String Beans.
May took on a female partner, Sweetie Matthews, as his foil and eventually his wife as well. The duo became a smash hit across both northern and southern circuits, powered by his good-natured gibberish and raunchy material. By the mid-1910s, newspaper accounts referred to his act (and others) as “the Blues”.
It’s important to note that, as best Abbott and Seroff deduce, whatever May was doing on stage was not directly related to the 12-bar blues music genre we all know and love. But traces of his original compositions would make their way into early blues music by the likes of Cow Cow Davenport and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Even Jelly Roll Morton, one of the greatest self-aggrandizers of the 20th Century, paid May a bit of acknowledgment.
Since there are no recordings of May (he died in 1917), we can’t say what exactly he was doing on stage, aside from making people laugh with his comic performances and original songs. But here’s a circa-1966 account Abbott and Seroff cite from someone who saw him perform:
Standing at full height, he reaches down to the keyboard as he sings like an early Ray Charles… As he attacks the piano, Stringbeans’ head starts to nod, his shoulders shake, and his body begins to quiver. Slowly, he sinks to the floor of the stage. Before he submerges, he is executing the Snake Hips… shouting the blues and, as he hits the deck still playing the piano performing a horizontal grind which would make today’s rock and roll dancers seem like staid citizens.”
Whether May concocted this routine on his own or cribbed bits and pieces from other performers is all but unknowable. What matters is that May was the one who brought the package to the stage—and killed with it. Whatever May’s act looked like, it clearly came out of black vernacular life, and the emerging tropes and traditions of black pop entertainment.
Further, such gyrations as described above would, to one degree or another, be emulated by blues and R&B piano players all the way down through time. By revealing as much about those traditions as it does, The Original Blues offers a hint of how deep black pop’s roots run.
* * *
“Not only is Miss [Bessie] Smith’s voice big, it is musical. Added to this is that peculiar strain and quality only known to our people, and which makes for what is now called blues singing. It is something on the order of what was called coon shouting, and which, in spite of the ugly name had an appeal in that it touched most of our race.
And indeed the white people fell for it as may be noted by the reception Sophie Tucker, and a few other white artists of the kind receive. The gallery gods go wild about Sophie’s singing, and yet she is imitating the Colored folk.”—Billy E. Lewis, reviewing a Bessie Smith performance in the Freeman, 25 May 1918
May isn’t the only performer Abbott and Seroff present for their long-overdue props. Baby Seals, Virginia Liston, and other stars of the era are singled out for extensive profiles about their careers and influence. Although Liston and others were on the scene long enough to record in the ‘20s, their backstories have never received this depth of treatment and discovery.
The same could be said for perhaps the two biggest stars to emerge from the southern vaudeville circuit, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. Both of them were showbiz veterans by the time they started making records, with Rainey said to have been singing the blues as early as 1913. But if we go by only the music they recorded, we have no idea about the career trajectory that landed them in a studio or the work they’d done over all those years to hone their craft.
We also might not realize that the woman who’s credited with kickstarting the blues craze, Mamie Smith, was a vaudeville veteran herself. Years before her “Crazy Blues” became a phenomenon, she was working the circuit singing and doing comedy acts. Her fame was due primarily to the hustle of another trouper, songwriter/performer Perry Bradford, who tapped Smith to be the voice of his original tunes (back then, the song and not a recording of it was the coin of the realm). After Smith and Bradford (who would now be considered a songwriter/producer) blew up, the floodgates opened for a string of female singers, including Ethel Waters and Trixie Smith (who in 1922 gave us, among other titles, “My Baby Rocks Me with a Steady Roll”, in case you ever wondered where that phrase came from). Curiously, however, the blues music they recorded owed less to the South and more to New York City, where they recorded and where southern black pop traditions weren’t particularly entrenched. Rainey (recording for Paramount) and Bessie Smith (Columbia) would soon change that.
Black music entrepreneurship also took a giant leap. The New York-based Black Swan Records, owned by Harry Pace, expanded beyond song publishing to record Waters, Trixie Smith, and other early blues singers, and mounted an unprecedented national tour of its artists. Other black-owned record labels emerged, briefly, in Kansas City and Los Angeles. And after much internecine politics and financial shakeouts, a formal structure emerged to host the national vaudeville circuit. The Theater Owners Booking Association controlled venues (mostly white-owned and black-managed) from Michigan to Alabama. But many of the facilities weren’t all that great and their proprietors not all that nice, prompting some performers to re-cast the acronym as Tough On Black Artists, or Asses.While the TOBA circuit would later give rise to the infamous “chitlin’ circuit” of black touring stops, who would have thought that a hundred years later, we’d see a far more extensive sort of consolidation known as Live Nation Entertainment?
Yes, everything old is new again, or was never really old in the first place—just evolving from shape to shape. By the time The Original Blues concludes, with talking movies and the Great Depression emaciating the black vaudeville world, black pop seemingly looked little like the places where it had been forged (black men singing and playing guitars, for example, was not a staple of early vaudeville). But the clues were there, even if they were already being lost to history.
* * *
”There is a haunting, pulling minor strain in the true Negro melody and jazz that the white man cannot imitate… The Negro has his art, and there is something pathetic in the picture of a true artist denied expression of his art because of a black skin.”—“Negro Art,” New Orleans Item, 3 July 1923
There is a lot in The Original Blues that’s cringe-worthy at best, at least by 2017 standards. Some of the early blues record ads placed by labels like Okeh and Paramount trade in the most obnoxious stereotypes. Some readers may share the discomfort some Northern vaudeville houses had for the riskier material of southern performers (one performer noted how he had to remove the word “pimp” from his routine). And there was no small amount of personal misconduct among the stars; Abbott and Seroff allude to published accounts of alleged abuse of female performers by their male partners, including the venerated May.
But there’s also much to marvel at here. Look at the pictures of performers decked out in sharp suits and outfits; musicians were style icons even then. See how much artists stayed on their grind; while playing a 1916 gig in Chicago, Estelle Harris and Anna Holt carved out time to appear in a movie (and yes, black folk were making movies back then). Note their resourcefulness; generations before hip-hop DJ’s peddled mixtapes from their cars, May rode around town playing piano on a truck. Check out how seriously and thoughtfully black writers and critics of the era took to their pens; deep journalistic engagement with black pop didn’t begin with The Source.
Then, wonder what Abbott and Seroff might possibly do for an encore. They could, conceivably, trace how the remnants of black vaudeville found their way like water into mid-century black pop, showing up everywhere from the gleeful jive of Louis Jordan’s r&b to comedians like Moms Mabley and Redd Foxx. (No Foxx, no Richard Pryor, no Eddie Murphy, no Dave Chappelle?). They’re historians, not cultural critics, so it’s probably not fair to ask them to opine on what it all means. But their skills as storytelling researchers would give us more than enough to move forward on that front (and they’d also have more than newspapers on microfilm to comb through).
Then, try to fathom how all that artistic and entrepreneurial activity was possible. These were performers navigating a landscape that, off stage and on the road, was anything but pleasant (many theaters had “midnight ramble” shows for the benefit of all-white audiences). They stayed on the road, and the road was hard. Yet their art was completely in and of black culture, it was unapologetically black entertainment for audiences who wanted their entertainment unapologetic, and the best of them did pretty well for themselves. Improbably, it’s likely that had any of it been preserved for viewing on YouTube or wherever, it might seem strangely familiar even now.
Do all that, and you might not take black music for granted ever again.