In discussing twentieth century American popular music and its most essential genre, the blues, there have been two main channels for getting into the history, or, as we like to say, the roots, of that tradition. The first and more familiar involves the so-called “pre-war blues”—confusingly called so, if you stop to think, since the music referred to by that name was recorded between 1921 and about 1937; the term ought to be, “between-wars,” or entre deux guerres. Regardless, people who love old music know what you mean when you say it. A dim blue light comes on over crackly shellac. “Pre-war”: that’s the twenties and thirties, the Okeh and Paramount labels, southern blues queens and obscure rural guitar geniuses. The real business. The plutonium.
The second and less familiar way of grappling with the music’s roots, and the one to which this story belongs in a sideways fashion, has to do with what gets called the Early Blues or, in a few instances, proto-blues. These terms are more elastic, chronologically, and can expand at the user’s discretion to fill the whole span of time between the end of the Civil War and the start of World War I, but they most often and most properly relate to the quarter century or so between, say, the late 1880s and 1915 or ’16, the years of formation, when the cultural elements that combined to form the music we call blues were active in the American test tube. This is an age not of “race records” but of Edison cylinders and sheet-music hits. It’s Tin Pan Alley and vaudeville, minstrel shows and medicine shows. Music happens by lamplight under canvas tents and in late-Victorian parlors, in brothels and churches. It comes from player pianos in taverns. If we hear a blues queen singing on the phonograph, she will be not Mamie or Bessie or Ma, but Nora Bayes, aka Dora Goldberg, a Jewish girl from Illinois, doing “Homesickness Blues” “This darky was some homesick, believe us!” reads the Victor Records catalogue. Or else she is Marion Harris, a white teenager from Indiana, from a miniscule place on the Ohio River called Pigeon Township (though she told people she came from the other side of the river, in Kentucky—it sounded better). She got famous, went to England, and married an English guy, but their house in London was obliterated by a German bomb in 1944, so she came back to America, only to die alone in a fire in her hotel room in New York City (cigarette, bed). All white girls. No African American singer was able to record a vocal blues for several more years, not until Mamie Smith did “Crazy Blues” in 1920 (and Mamie only got that job because Sophie Tucker—Jewish and from Connecticut—fell ill). A year or two later Smith’s contemporary, the black singer Sara Martin, a real Kentuckian (Louisville), found herself billed as “the black Sophie Tucker.” At times there’s a through-the-looking-glass quality to it all. Much that we think of as solid is liquid. Blacks and whites are both performing in blackface. Authenticity and appropriation play hide-and-seek.
It’s important to grasp that for more or less the entirety of this earlier period, there was no such thing as a “blues song,” not in the sense that we have inherited and think of as inherent to the music. The aab rhyme scheme, the twelve-bar structure, the I–IV–V chords—we could look through the whole catalogue of proto-blues songs and not find a single one that satisfies all three of those requirements. Few would satisfy more than one, and plenty would satisfy none. As a mental exercise, then, we have to completely let go of this notion, that a particular type of song is a “blues song.” Blues was a mode, and a mood. It ran through a range of forms. This is what the British radio host and scholar of jazz history Humphrey Lyttelton meant in the 1970s when he described those “moments when anyone setting out to discuss the blues must wish devoutly that the term had never been coined.”