Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Vol. 32. No. 25. October 9, 1969
For about the last twenty-five years or so the Blues has been more or less the exclusive province of male singers, female blues singers being decidedly in the minority. This has not always been thes case however, as there was a time when the mention of the word 'Blues' automatically brought to mind such names as Bessie Smith. Ma Rainey. Clara Smith. Trixie Smith. Sara Martin and other illustrious blue ladies.
Why were the ladies so popular in their day? Why not now? Where, how and when did it all begin—and end? I'd like to briefly consider some of these questions and try to put in perspective the whole situation insofar as it relates to the great names of the Classic Blues era.
We have frequently been told how the Blues had their roots in the social environment of the American Negro from the times of Slavery, how the African rhythms combined with European musical culture in the fields and prisons and on the levee to produce initially the field hollers and work shouts and songs, how these work songs evolved to become what we know today as The Blues. We know that the men were singing the Blues before the turn of the century and well before the advent of recordings. But, what were the women doing while the men were out hollering in the levee camps and shouting their work songs in the chain gangs? Why, they were working in them cotton fields or silting at home with the piccaninnies, jest a'waiting for Daddy to come home! In truth, the women were just as Oppressed and hard worked as the men and were frequently required to do the same work as the men. They also evolved their own work songs, perhaps not comparable with the rough and rhythmic musical efforts of their menfolk in the railroad gangs, but they were work songs nevertheless.
The turning point for the Negro was in 1865, the end of the American Civil War and the beginning of the Emancipation of the Slaves. I say the 'beginning' because even though they were legally freed, large numbers of Negroes were kept in a virtual state of slavery for many years afterwards. However, at least their music was given greater freedom, they were able to meet freely for religious meetings etc.
Many Negroes travelled to the cities and due to their social conditiond tended to congregate in their own communities within the cities. These communities grew and became established non-white areas. Areas like Storyville in New Orleans, South Side in Chicago, Harlem in New York and so on. By the late 1800's the Vaudeville theatre was at the height of its popularity in the towns, and around the Southern States the medicine show or tent show was one of the most popular forms of entertainment, travelling minstrel troupes attracting large crowds. Both the city theatres and the country tent shows had an increasing number of female performers and it was in these shows that many of the record stars of the 1920's made their start and in some cases made their names. Ma Rainey was an established performer with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels long before she made her first record. Joe and Susie Edwards were already known to Vaudeville audiences as Butterbeans and Susie prior to their success as recording artists. Cleosephus Gibson, of the Vaudeville duo Gibson and Gibson, later recorded as Cleo Gibson. Bessie Smith was one of the stars of the TOBA circuit, having been featured in a show called The Florida Cotton Blossoms, five years before Clarence Williams arranged for her first visit to the Columbia studios in 1923.
Although the phonograph had been invented in 1877 and became an established form of entertainment soon after the turn of the century, it was not until 1920 that records were produced with the Negro specifically in mind. The first singer to record the Blues was Mamie Smith who, on a Tuesday in mid-August 1920 recorded her Crazy Blues. This was the beginning of a veritable flood of records by female blues singers.
Records were made to be sold, and obviously the best market for records was in the cities where the greatest concentration of people and money was to be found. The best type of music to record was therefore the type that would appeal to those in the cities. Thus, when it was decided to exploit the vast and expanding Negro market by means of Race Records', the choice of material tended to be Jazz and Female Blues. These two types of music went hand in hand since almost all female blues singers relied on other people (usually Jazz musicians) to accompany them and a large proportion of Jazz Bands featured women singers. The 1920's then became the heyday of Jazz (both Negro and While) and the Blues as sung by the female Negroes. Among the many reasons for this were the facts that the white people had discovered a novelty in this new form of music, the Negroes found a sense of self identification, and, in contrast to the male country blues, the female blues was relatively Europeanised in its musical form and was therefore easier for the newcomer to appreciate.
Of course, the male singers were not completely ignored and a few were recorded in 1924 and 1925. By 1926 and 1927 the Victor. Columbia and Okeh companies were even starting to engage in field trips to record out-of-town artists. Other companies like Vocalion and Paramount were recording similar singers and musicians but were having them brought into the city rather than taking lots of cumbersome although portable equipment out in search of talent away from their main recording centres. The number of male singers recorded increased very considerably from 1927 but for the reasons stated above their popularity never equalled that of the women.
Most of the female blues singers won their fame in two ways, first through live performances on the stage (either in the theatre or the tent shows) and secondly by means of the gramophone record. Of course this sequence was not followed in all cases, some singers were unknown, even in their own home towns, until their records started selling. A number, however, had become very well known, as I have already mentioned, long before they visited a recording studio. Whatever the sequence the net result was still the same—record sales boosted their theatre bookings and their live performances drew attention to their available recordings.
For nine years the female blues singers rode on the crest of a wave of popularity. Bessie Smith's first record sold 780.000 copies and within a year she had sold over two million records. Hundreds of women recorded the blues, every major recording company and many of the smaller ones had exclusive contracts with female blues singers, those companies that didn't have their own singers issued recordings made by other companies either with or without permission. It seemed as if the appetite of the record buying public would continue for ever on a diet liberally sprinkled with the blues. But it didn't. One could almost pinpoint the hour and the day in 1929 when the era of the Classic Blues ceased, the very day from which many blues singers returned to their homes never to enter the doors of a recording company again.
It has been frequently mentioned that the Great Depression was of considerable importance in the history of the gramophone and of gramophone records. For one thing it knocked a large number of the smaller companies out of business, and for another it curtained the recording activities for quite some time of most of the other companies. That fateful day. Tuesday the 29th October 1929, when the stock market on Wall Street crashed, was the beginning of the end for all but a handful of artists. By the time record sales had picked up again, the Jazz Age was over, we were into the swing era and he public had just about forgotten their idols of the 19. They wanted (and got) the sounds of the bip bands, The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, the first band to record jazz in 1917, was antiquated, a thing of the past. The blues singers were replaced by the crooners and the sweet sentimental ballad singers. Bessie Smith's last recordings were produced, not for the general American public, but were made at the instigation of collector John Hammond for the benefit of English collectors who were just catching on to hot music having during the 1920's only received a handful of the many blues records that had been produced in the States. (As a matter of interest the first blues record to be issued in England was in Octobr 1923. three years after the first blues record was made in America.) Sara Martin had made her last recording in 1928 and was now devoting her time to the church. Mamie Smith, whose previous record was issued in 1926 paid another visit to the recording studios in 1931 and. to the accompaniment of a nine-piece orchestra, made her two final records. Trixie Smith who recorded up to 1926 made no further records until 12 years later when in 1938 she made some updated versions of her previously recorded 'Freight Train Blues' and 'Trixie Blues', almost an attempt at a comeback. And so the story goes on, singers either faded out suddenly, struggled on hopelessly, or were forced to adopt a more up-to-date and modern approach to their singing.
It is interesting to note that, by the middle 1930's. even the jazz historians had virtually forgotten the blues singers ten years ago. The first ever discography, or listing of records. which was entitled 'Rhythm On Record' and was produced 1936 by Hilton R. Schleman, only mentions Bessie Smith, Clara Smith and one title by Mamie Smith, while Charles Delaunay's 'Host Discography' of 1937 only lists two singers Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. It wasn't until the jazz revival in the 1940's and early 1950's that people again began to take notice of the many great recordings made by the Blue Ladies of the 1920's.