In his essay “The Curses,” published in two parts in SR’s Winter and Spring 2017 issues, John Jeremiah Sullivan uncovered the history of what may be, by at least one definition, the first blues song ever written, an 1887 sheet-music hit titled “The Curse.” The song’s composer, Paul Dresser, has long been considered one of the nineteenth century’s greatest songwriters. He wrote “My Gal Sal” and “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away,” among other chestnuts. He was also the eldest brother of the famed novelist Theodore Dreiser. Many of Dresser’s songs survived in the popular imagination for decades after his death in 1906, but the one that critics of his own time tended to call his best, a haunted lament titled “The Curse,” disappeared from memory. As Sullivan shows, that was not an accident. The song was deliberately erased from history. The last time one finds it mentioned in print is 1914, when a pioneering African-American arts critic named Columbus Bragg referred to it as “the first blues song” in the pages of the Chicago Defender.
There are no extant recordings of the song; research suggests there never were any. When “The Curse” was written and released, the first popular recordings were still a few years off, and apparently no one ever went back for it. There was something about it; the song was bad mojo somehow. It was too dark to live. That’s what Dresser had decided, anyway, and history respected his wishes. Until now.
While composing “The Curses,” Sullivan reached out to a former bandmate and musical collaborator named Nicholas Laudadio, who’s also an English professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. They worked together over a period of months. As Laudadio reconstructed the music with a stark period feel, Sullivan tried to learn how to sing it. Laudadio recorded, engineered, and produced the result. Thanks to his efforts, it is available here to lovers of music and history for, as strange as it sounds, the first time.
Interested in recording your own version? Find the original sheet music here. We would be especially appreciative if you could help us hear what Columbus Bragg heard in the song in 1914, that is, help us hear it as a “blues song.” Helpful in this task might be Jelly Roll Morton’s rendition for Alan Lomax, from the 1930s, included as part of our “My Gal Sal” annotated playlist here. Morton demonstrates how Dresser’s white pop songs were “transformed” in the hands of black Southern pianists. The recording of “The Curse” presented here is intentionally straightforward in style, to allow for maximum freedom of interpretation.