The Curses: Part I

John Jeremiah Sullivan

Winter 2017

Part I: The Ahjah Is Coming

 

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.”

A fact that has gone unnoticed is that in the decades just before people started to talk about singing “the blues” or “a blues,” Americans were talking extensively about “blue music” and “blue songs.” It began in the 1870s, which is to say it began just after the Civil War, as freed slaves fanned out through the country by the tens of thousands. Emancipation was among other things a great cultural explosion and diffusion. People everywhere now were hearing, as they hadn’t really done before, the sounds of the plantation, the true black music, the moan. For most white American ears, especially in places where there had been no slavery, this sound was jarring and hypnotic. They called it “weird”—always that word, never “strange” or “odd”—and they called it “blue.” It was sad and sexy, which were their two main connotations for “blue.” In 1877 there was some kind of initial linguistic blip, a fluorescence, in a town called Deansville, New York. On May 18th of that year, a “Cornet Band” gave “an exhibition of ‘Blue’ music” at the Academy Hall, admission a quarter. In conjunction with the concert, a local Episcopal priest and music lover named O. C. Wightman had been invited to “deliver a lecture; subject, ‘Blue Music.’” A decade later, you could already read that at a “symphony social”’—in Fort Wayne, Indiana, of all places—“Blue music will be sung by the blue quartet.”

The “blue music” phenomenon had been spurred by black southern sounds, but the term could refer to other styles: melodramatic theater music, eerie old Scottish “Hie’lan” ballads. Tchaikovsky’s music was thought of as blue. “Someone has very happily spoken of his ‘dark blue’ music,” said the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 1901. “Blue music” soon became slang for complaint. The Charleston News and Courier in 1907 mentioned those moments “when some guy hands you a bunch of blue music about hard luck.”  Significantly, this term, “blue music,” persisted as a description even after the word “blues” had begun to see use as a genre term for certain types of black music. In other words, “blue music” and “blues music” were, for a stretch, coeval and frequently synonymous. “The Broadway Blues is Blue as Indigo,” read a 1920 New Orleans newspaper ad for a new song by the singer Aileen Stanley, adding that the tune was “set to blue music.” And as late as the summer of 1930, when the Indianapolis Star reported that a wife’s fondness for “singin’ the blues” had driven her husband to attempt suicide, the paper in Logansport, Indiana, seventy miles to the north, said that we could “Blame Blue Songs” for the tragedy. A year later a reporter for the New York Post walked into a party for James Weldon Johnson (who had written The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man back in 1912) and stumbled on Paul Robeson and Carl Van Vechten sitting “[a]mongst the strains of blue music.”

There did, of course, come a time when the word “blues,” as used in a musical context, began to solidify into something like what we mean by it today. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first time someone wrote “blues” as a term “designating a song, melody, etc., performed in a blues style” was in 1914. The sentence appears in the November 7th issue of the Chicago Defender, the seminal African American newspaper that published some of this country’s first black arts criticism. The writer is announcing an upcoming charity benefit and listing the acts scheduled to appear. At the end he writes, “Mr. William Abel, the race’s greatest descriptive singer, will sing the first Blues song, entitled ‘Curses,’ by Mr. Paul Dresser.”

A fascinating sentence in many respects. For one thing, it inaugurates one of the deepest traditions of blues scholarship: the quest for origins. What is the first blues song? Nearly every serious researcher of the subject has taken a stab at the problem, and providing a summary of past theories has long been a rite of passage. An iconic moment occurred in 1940 when Alan Lomax, the famous musicologist and promoter, put the question to Nelson “Big Eye” Delisle, an early jazz clarinetist from New Orleans. “The blues?” Delisle replied. “Ain’t no first blues. The blues always been.” It is in most ways an unimprovable answer. But certain memories and anecdotes have been enshrined as flash-points. In 1903, the composer W. C. Handy nodded off while waiting for a train in Tutwiler, Mississippi, and woke to hear a “lean, loose-jointed Negro” sliding “a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists” and singing the enigmatic line, “Goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog.” It was, Handy later wrote, “the weirdest music I had ever heard.” A year before that encounter, the soon-to-be blues diva Ma Rainey, at the time an unknown “coon shouter” named Gertrude Pridgett, was traveling with a minstrel show through a string of little Missouri towns. One day she overheard “a girl from the town who came to the tent one morning and began to sing about the ‘man’ who had left her. The song was so strange and poignant.” In Rainey’s telling, it was she herself who, a few years later, inspired by this girl, had begun doing specialty numbers that she called “the blues.” Handy had made a similar claim—that it was he who turned this strange, weird music into our familiar “blues.” A feature of the blues origin narrative is that, at the center, one tends to find the teller.

That sentence in the Defender is the first “first blues.” It represents the first time, that we know of, when someone speculated about what the first blues song had been, and who had created it. This is also the first time we ever find these two words together, “blues” and “song.”  The first time someone ever calls a song “a blues song,” he’s actively wondering what the first one was. The form and the obsession with the form’s roots are born together. This suggests that when we wonder about the beginning of the blues, we are participating in the form; it is a way of playing the blues.

Another extraordinary thing about the sentence is that the man doing the wondering is black. That’s not how it’s supposed to be. “Blues scholarship” is educated white men writing on old black music. But this is why the Early Blues rewards study. The writer’s name is Columbus Bragg, or to go by the fuller version he gave the draft board in 1918, the Rev. Columbus Sylvester Clifton Bragg. He was preaching then (or claimed to be; he often grew inventive when asked to provide biographical data) at a tiny church called Israel of God, White Horse Army, a black evangelical sect that had recently bloomed in nearby Sycamore, Illinois. The members keep their headquarters there to this day. They possess some old records, but these make no mention of a Rev. Bragg. The only other noticeable entry on his draft card is a brief observation made by the registrar, concerning Bragg’s physical faculties. The man, who must have examined one too many inductees that day, has written in big bold cursive, “Deaf Eye.”

It is perhaps an unfortunate description for an arts critic. Bragg’s slender fame, his not-quite-oblivion, depends entirely on a brief 1914 stint as a culture columnist for the Chicago Defender. The newspaper had been founded about a decade before, just as Bragg was coming to the city, arriving by train from Louisiana with a half-German wife named Lillian and their daughter, Lumie. He seems to have made the decision on the train to rewrite his past.

The Braggs settled on the Stroll, the hip section of State Street, between 26th and 39th. Any discussion of black Chicago culture in the twentieth century starts there, and Bragg’s snappy, name-dropping column, On and Off the Stroll, is recognized as having helped give definition to the place and to its energy. This is in spite of the fact that he lasted only nine months in the job, and half of the time was using his column to puff for a theatrical production, an elaborate and unusual show he had written and that he felt sure would change everything.

Bragg is forgotten now even by the people who remember things. A few academic studies involving the history of black cinema mention him because he was in all likelihood the first African American journalist ever to write a movie review. His year as a Defender columnist, 1914, happened to coincide with the nationwide release of the first black silent film or “photoplay,” The Railroad Porter, produced a year earlier in Chicago by William D. Foster, a sometime sports reporter at the Defender. Bragg spent time on Foster’s sets and probably had a hand in the film somehow; he was nothing if not active and multitalented. He may have even been in the movie—no print has ever surfaced, although it met with a great deal of favor at the time. It toured the South and was “booked in various sections of the country,” drawing positive notices not just in the local press but in Billboard (“a splendid production”) and Moving Picture World (“laugh makers of a most infectious kind”).

 

Columbus Bragg, Kid Brown, and William D. Foster

––Columbus Bragg, Kid Brown, and William D. Foster

 

The picture of Bragg comes from his apparently self-composed 1925 obituary in the Defender, where he is said to have been, among other things, a “noted scientist,” with fluent French, Spanish, Latin, and Greek, a man who in his younger days had been “known throughout Europe as a famed actor and writer,” but who “then was injured while experimenting with a small steam engine.” After that, the obit says, “his rise in scientific fields was halted by his deafness.” Which is all either half-true or completely untrue but manages to give a more vivid sense of Bragg’s personality than the truth might have done.

As for the truth? It was simple. Columbus Bragg was a cakewalker, a kind of dance man. Indeed, he had been in his youth considered “prince of cakewalkers,” the “Adonis.” That was all down in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he came from.

Bragg was born in Smithville, Georgia (like Tampa Red, the guitar player who wrote “Tight Like That”), but his family moved to Little Rock when Columbus was quite small, setting up in a small rented house on West Jefferson Avenue. In the obituary, Bragg says that his father was “an Australian born Abyssinian” who took Bragg from Arkansas at a young age, “and together they toured the orient.” In the colder reality recorded in the census, his father was a former slave named William Bragg, a woodchopper by trade, born in Virginia not long after the War of 1812. William was sixtyish when Columbus was born in 1874, and he didn’t live much longer. Columbus became a fatherless child.

In 1880, the boy Bragg was mentioned in a local paper, the Daily Arkansas Gazette, for having made the honor roll at Arsenal, a free school for black children that operated in Little Rock during the second half of the nineteenth century. Twelve years later, in March of 1892, when Bragg was eighteen, he showed up in the paper again. This time the news was not so good. He’d been arrested for “loafing,” a charming old legal term that was trotted out when a white cop felt like busting every Negro he saw. “Chief Sanders and his assistants were after loafers last night,” the Democrat reported, “and arrested twenty-one.”  It was right after the bust that Bragg moved north to St. Louis. There he discovered his gift for cakewalking. He may have been doing it some back in Little Rock, but he developed his style in Missouri.

I wish I could travel backward in time and see the look on the face of an American pop culture devotee circa 1897 when I tell her that within a hundred years it will have become necessary to explain to most people what cakewalking was. In the late nineteenth century, it was such a thing. Granted, it has never really gone away. As long as people enjoy watching reruns of “Soul Train,” cakewalking lives. It was, in essence, competitive promenading. Couples would line up and walk together in a circle, dancing and posing to music, passing rows of admirers. The practice had begun among the slaves on the plantations. A former slave named Estella Jones recounted memories of the “cakewalk” for a WPA Federal Writers’ Project researcher in the 1930s. “They swept the yards real clean and set benches for the party. Banjos was used for music making. The womens wore long, ruffled dresses with hoops in them, and the mens had on high hats, long split-tailed coats, and some of them used walking sticks. The couple that danced best got a prize.”  Some remembered that the practice had first come about after the slaves witnessed their masters dancing the minuet in their parlors and began to imitate them in some kind of ambiguously mocking fashion, at the same time no doubt reveling in the dance. The contradictions, always and from the beginning. An article that appeared in the Wichita Daily Eagle in 1892 gave a beautifully vivid description of these early cakewalks. The practice of “walking for prizes,” writes the anonymous reporter, “originated in the south during the old slavery days”:

In those days it was called a dance and always took place at a corn-husking or quilting party. They used to give them in the open air by candle light, under the old system of burning fat and cotton batting in a tin pan, so that everything could go on joyfully.
This made a strange but after all a pleasant light, as it flickered among the cornstalks and the green trees. The walking took place usually in a cornfield after the grain had been stripped from the stalks. The costumes worn were odd and very different from those which may be seen at any of the modern cakewalks in the city of New York. The women used to wear in the cornfield gingham dresses and old clothes, and the men wore cornsack trousers, with one leg rolled up and the other pulled down.

By the time Bragg got into cakewalking, it had evolved into a sophisticated urban phenomenon—“modern cakewalks in the city”—and something of a craze. A lot of African Americans disliked it, though, precisely because it smacked so thoroughly of slavery times. In 1899, a black Masonic lodge in Coffeyville, Kansas, heard about a local cakewalk that was to be held, and issued a formal denunciation:

Resolved, That we heartily condemn the practice of cake walking as publicly indulged in by a certain element of our people as being highly immoral; that we stigmatize it as a retrogression and a public nuisance, since it is a fact that this species of minstrel only shows up our defects and is only attended by the intelligent public for the purpose of ascertaining how closely allied to the lower animal this class of negroes is and how many nonsensical “monkeyshines” they can imitate.

Bragg had a different perspective. Cakewalking was an art, or could be. His own walk possessed elegance, wit, and a musical sense.

In 1897, five years after he’d slipped across the border in the shadow of his loafing charge, he underwent a kind of public redemption. He was summoned back to Little Rock. The black community was organizing the annual Emancipation Day festival, and cakewalking would be featured. They’d heard talk evidently of what their native and prodigal son Columbus had been up to in St. Louis. The Daily Arkansas Gazette speaks:

There will be “a feast of reason and flow of soul” and amusement for thousands at West End Park tomorrow on the occasion of the great emancipation celebration . . . A cake walk will be given at night. The committee after great efforts, has succeeded in obtaining the consent of Columbus Bragg, of St. Louis, the champion cake walker of the world, to participate.

Sure enough, “The cake walk occurred about midnight and the judges awarded the prize to Columbus Bragg and Carrie Crice.”

Bragg wound up staying in Little Rock for another three years, presiding over a kind of cakewalking renaissance there. The range of his performances gives us a feel for how diversified the form had become, or in how many scenarios it could happen. There was the classic cakewalk, at a fair, essentially a post-bellum continuation of what had been done in the South for a long time. But there was also the cakewalk as stage spectacle, a show held in a theater, either on its own or as part of a larger vaudeville ticket. Bragg focused on that the most. Within weeks of his return he’d formed the Columbus Bragg Company, “Cake Walkers, Buck Dancers and Vocalists.” They entered competitions with other local cakewalking clubs. “The Columbus Bragg Company will walk in a contest with the Manhattan Club of Hot Springs at the Capitol Theater tomorrow night,” announced the Gazette, adding that a group called The Missing Link Quartette would “open the entertainment with a song entitled ‘Coonville Grand Cake Walk.’” There was even betting at these events. “Columbus Bragg and ‘Pistoe,’ the champion cake walker, will be on the stage at the Capitol Theater tonight,” said the Gazette, adding that, “‘Pistoe’ seems to be the favorite in the betting and carries the greater portion of the public money.” It is not mentioned who won this particular cakewalk.  But if the proceedings were like those described in other accounts of Bragg’s cakewalking, the judges for the contest were “well-known business men of Little Rock,” and that there were “[s]eparate seats for white and colored patrons.”

Most curious of all is a solo cakewalking appearance Bragg made in Little Rock in April of 1899. The Gazette reports: “For the special benefit of the school-children and those who have never seen a genuine cake walk, Columbus Bragg will pose in the large window of the London Misfit Parlors, 197 Main Street. He will show all the late poses and positions used in his up-to-date exhibitions.” Misfit parlors: clothing stores that dealt in bespoke clothing which had been left at the tailor’s shop for one reason or another because the customer had rejected it or couldn’t pay. And there was Bragg in the window, posing, cakewalking by himself.

There are some lost years, between Little Rock and Chicago, between about 1901 and maybe 1908. We know that he was in Louisiana, marrying Lillian (probably Lillian Goodman, his fellow cakewalker in Little Rock). Their girl, Lumie, was born down there. He was traveling with a minstrel show. Not a cakewalker now but some kind of singing comedian. He was a black vaudevillian, an “Ethiopian” entertainer, in the parlance of the white press. (Bragg used the word, too, or a variation on it: he would write “Ethiopianist” to mean black, as in an “Ethiopianist pianist.”) He often performed in blackface. The Indianapolis Freeman praised his “burlesque on the Salome dance” as “original, only from thought and imagination.”

Once settled in Chicago, he seems to have backed off from performing. “I left the illegitimate or vaudeville stage,” he writes, preferring “refined vaudeville.” He had tired of the popular audience, “the demon with her thousand eyes,” and turned instead “to the Ethiopic classics, first being a Bible student, and my whole desire to help the struggling churches and thirty-three years’ practical experience since a boy of real acting on the international stage of the world.”

In 1910, he was working at a machine shop. Perhaps it is here that he was deafened by some kind of explosion, the incident he later turned into the death of his scientific career, when he had been, in his own words, “incapacitated in the zenith of his life.” After that he apparently set up shop as a barber, at Brown & White’s on the Stroll. Or rather, he was working in a barbershop—a kind of de facto community center in many black communities, as is often the case today—but he wasn’t barbering. Instead he was selling copies of the Chicago Defender and the Indianapolis Freeman, typing people’s letters for them, offering advice. He went there every day at seven in the morning. If he wasn’t there, he was at the Pekin Theater, the first black theater in Chicago, where the management had made him “Director of Amusements.” People loved Rev. Bragg, that much is clear. He was a cultural figure. There goes Columbus Bragg, always telling you what you needed to know. His favorite subject? The Bible. Since leaving the minstrel world, he had turned his heart completely to God. He was learning about the White Horse Army, the incipient black evangelical revolution determined to sweep the world clean of sin and restore racial sanity. “Jesus Is Coming Soon” was his favorite song. He had developed a theory involving Ethiopia and Ethiopians—not black American minstrels, not those Ethiopians, but the real ones in the Old World, the Abyssinians (Ethiopia was also called Abyssinia in those days). Bragg was turning the word around on them. He could prove to you, using a mixture of scripture and historical sources, that the Jews of the Bible—the Tribe of Judah—were in reality the remnants of an ancient Ethiopian kingdom. “4,000 years before Christ,” he writes, “Ethiopia was the ruling power of the earth.”

There are no records on this, but my sense is that around 1910 he started working on the idea of a musical-theater piece with ambitiously high production values that would express his vision of world history. He called it The Ahjah, Or . . . The King and Queen of Zue. He told people it was based on his travels through Africa. “What is the Ahjah?” he writes later and helpfully replies, “Sire, that is the blood of maiden’s hearts preserved in the golden urn for four thousand years, the spirits of five hundred virgins burned alive to be redeemed in ecstasy of a fantasma of bones.”

In 1913, Bragg showed up in the Defender for the first time. The first time, that is, since his cakewalking days, when his appearances in minstrel shows had occasionally received a line or two of notice. He wasn’t writing for the Defender yet, but the paper reported that a benefit was being held in his honor. This was not, mind you, the benefit that would be held a year later, occasioning Bragg’s theory about “the first ‘blues’ song.” This was an earlier benefit.

Two charitable events in two years. You see what I mean about his being loved. It also suggests that he had a lot of health problems. A testimonial was given on his behalf by “the theatrical profession of Chicago.” There was a street parade. Anderson “Kid” Brown, the early film star and jazz singer (and Bragg’s favorite—a “big-time musical genius,” he called him), put in a special appearance. Brown’s picture is reproduced above. That image, like Bragg’s, has never been reproduced before. Kid Brown has always been considered a faceless phantom and was one. But it turns out that the Middle Georgia Archives in Macon has preserved a flyer printed when Brown passed through that town in 1927, touring with a group called the Chicago Hot Shots. Brown was considered an excellent banjo player and a “classy straight-man.” His “Bo-Lita Blues,” about a Mexican game of chance that became ruinously popular in this country around the turn of the century, is eerie and unforgettable, sung in his pitch-perfect voice, at once high and edgy. If we want to hear the kind of thing Bragg loved to hear, and was hearing on the Stroll, “Bo-Lita Blues” is a place to start, though it didn’t get recorded until a decade or so later.

A nice coincidence: also on that benefit stage, just before Kid Brown, had been Johnny Woods, the world’s greatest ventriloquist. Woods was black and performed in blackface. His dummy, Little Henry, had a brown face. God knows what Henry was supposed to be, racially speaking.  The audience could only wonder. He was a cipher who somehow embodied the age. Woods would pull him out of a garbage can, and Henry would start singing. “He uses the ‘blues’ for little Henry in this drunken act,” wrote an observer who’d seen them in Jacksonville, Florida in 1910.  That sentence is another “first blues” moment. In the words of Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff, who discovered the reference, it marks the “earliest known published account of blues singing on a public stage.”

Does that also mean the Little Henry sentence predates and supersedes Bragg’s own, the one we’re trying to unravel here, the supposed first time someone ever wrote “blues” as “[d]esignating a song, melody, etc., performed in a blues style”? It isn’t clear. To “use the blues” could mean the old way, to sing with a bluesy vibe, or it could reflect the newer, emerging meaning, to sing a “blues song.” It seems like the latter, especially given that the writer puts quotation marks around the word. At any rate, the OED’s editors need to look into it. For now, we should be content to have found Bragg and Woods together and knowing each other. It suggests we’re on the right path, and furthermore that we should be hesitant to dismiss anything Bragg says about blues origins. He was on the minstrel circuit pretty much nonstop between 1892 and 1904. If anybody was present for the Big Bang of the blues, it was Bragg. “Peculiar how fiction is stranger than truth,” he writes. “People look to that wooden doll, Henry, to laugh hearty. Best hit ever.”

It was not long after the first benefit, in March of 1914, that Bragg’s byline started showing up in the Defender. His column, On and Off the Stroll, is a remarkable set of documents. If nothing else about Bragg’s life had been interesting, his writing would suffice. The various fugitive pieces need to be gathered into some kind of anthology, so they can be read together. The same goes for Bragg’s colleagues and contemporaries: Sylvester Russell, Tony Langston, Minnie Adams, Lester A. Walton. There were others, not many, but some. They made up the first generation of black critics. They were the children of slaves, yet they rose to write about the popular art of their time with a complexity and perspicacity that in some areas of the field we have not caught up to again. Bragg was especially interested in the cinema. The one book that gives his writing considered attention, Anna Everett’s illuminating Returning the Gaze, subtitled A Genealogy of Black Film Criticism, persuasively places Bragg at the source waters of that tradition. Bragg paid attention to film-acting. He was in a rare position, as someone who had moved directly from the vaudeville theatrical world to an equally intimate familiarity with some of the first film sets. Distinctions that are mainly academic to us, or even to critics a writing a decade after Bragg, were for him transformations that he had witnessed firsthand in the bodies and faces of his castmates. “[A]ctors and actresses that have worked on the stage,” he writes,

are seldom successful in motion picture work or photo-play productions. To act before a camera requires special qualities. The pantomime actor of one hundred years ago who depended for effects solely upon actions and not words would have made an ideal motion picture actor today, who must necessarily rely upon facial expression and gesture for the interpretation of any scene or incident which he may desire to portray. Now an experienced motion picture actor or actress very rarely looks direct at the camera, but does his part as though it were non-existent.

Anna Everett points out that by attempting an analysis like this in 1914, by breaking down in a technical fashion the changes film had wrought on our conceptions of acting and storytelling, Bragg had anticipated Vachel Lindsay’s 1915 Film as Art by a year. He possessed an original mind. And he had seen things. Of course he was limited by the brevity of his column, and his theories consist in stabs.

Most of On the Stroll is taken up with fulfilling its very real social function. It was, while it lasted, the “Goings On About Town” of black Chicago. You read it to know what was happening that week, what was most worth seeing at the different cafés and theaters on the Stroll. “Miss Lucille Hegemin, the Georgia peach, holds sway at the Willow Springs cafe,” Bragg writes, adding that, “Mr. Will Abel assists nightly.”

Later in the same column there’s an odd and interesting moment, from an etymological or, it’s hard to say, maybe a typographical point of view. Bragg is talking about a violinist named Oliver Perry (n.b., not Oliver “King” Perry, who was only being born in 1914).

Mr. Oliver Perry, one of America’s best violinists’, pretty little wife is visiting his mother at St. Louis, Mo. That’s why he plays the ‘Blues and Lonesome Lane’ so often through concerts at the Elite cafe. Now, if you really want to hear soul-stirring blues, hear Perry while the wife is away.

If we look closely at the second sentence, something is off. There’s no song called “Blues and Lonesome Lane.” Well, we may think to ourselves, that’s simple, it must be “Blue and Lonesome Lane.” Which does sound like a song. But again, nothing: it doesn’t exist, or at least I can’t find it, and I’ve looked everywhere. Which means what must have happened is that Bragg wrote of Perry, “That’s why he plays the ‘blues’ and “Lonesome Lane” so often . . .” The copyeditor, misreading, or possibly not knowing what it would mean to use ‘blues’ that way even if he has read correctly (the usage was new, after all), has altered the text to read ‘Blues and Lonesome Lane.’ In other words, this ought to be another recognized moment in the etymology of the word “blues,” and in the evolution of the language surrounding the form, but it has been erased, or not erased but obscured, folded under and in. This is the first time somebody ever wrote down the expression “play the blues.” That’s no small thing. It was a “soul-stirring” violin blues.

What makes On the Stroll most entertaining, though (and sometimes hilarious to read), is that amidst brilliant nonsequiturs on film aesthetics and suggestions on clubs to check out, Bragg is all the while puffing shamelessly for his Ahjah, his love. He wrote hundreds and hundreds of words about it—how tremendous it was going to be. One is amazed they let him do it. But he was Columbus Bragg. His aura was so positive, people seem to have sort of let him operate. “The Ahjah will be staged at the finest theater in America,” he wrote. “Special scenery, electrical effects, costumes, and the greatest cast [that] ever played . . .”

At first the production was scheduled to be held at the Pekin, but something went wrong there. The stage may not have been big enough. The opening was even advertised in the Defender at the end of 1913: “Notice—The management begs to announce the coming of the great ‘Ahjah’ . . . Big Cast . . . ‘Ethiopian King’ . . . 33 Persons, Week of 15th at the Pekin Theatre.” But then there isn’t a word about it afterward. Or rather there is three months later a cryptic report: The Ahjah has already happened, Bragg tells us, and it “scored success from the jump.” At the same time, “Chicago society is waiting with feverish anxiety for the coming of the great Ethiopian classic play, ‘The Ahjah.’” Bragg had found a new space—a church this time, the Institutional Church and Social Settlement on the Southside, Dearborn Street. A progressive congregation, focused on social reform. A nice big building, dignified. Bragg writes that in his mind “the stage and pulpit are not separate entities, they are essentially interdependent.” He was connecting the stage to the church at the same time he was connecting it to the cinema.

Now that Bragg had a physical space to project his imagination onto, he looked for every possible opportunity to mention The Ahjah. His methods for weaving it in were ingenious. “A big film firm of New York,” he reported, “is trying to buy the plot of the great play, ‘Ahjah.’” He interviewed himself about it: “Prof. Columbus Bragg was asked why he founded his new drama, ‘Ahjah,’ on the Bible.” (Right!) “He dictated the following reply . . .” Most egregiously, he had a sort of tic: whenever he really wanted to mention The Ahjah, but had no rational excuse, he would write something like, “Yes, Esmeralda, the Ahjah is coming.” He doesn’t tell us who Esmeralda is. She may not even exist. Mabel is another (possibly) dreamed-up woman incessantly asking him about his musical’s progress. “Yes, Mabel, the Ahjah is coming. All the special scenery is ready, child.” And in another place, “Wait, Mabel, until you hear them sing the songs of Solomon. The original sacred writing, child. You’re so impatient. Yes, it’s coming, you inquisitive child.”

More edifying for us, perhaps, in Bragg’s writing about The Ahjah, is something he’s doing accidentally, or at least incidentally, which is recording details of the production. He reports them as if they’re news, little trials and tribulations of the casting, the staging, etc. In the process he gives us an unusually up-close picture of an early black stage production. He’s having a hard time keeping his actors in town. Billy Starks, who has a major role, wants to join the Eighth Regiment and go to Mexico to fight Pancho Villa. “To foil the fighting ambition of the great comedian,” Bragg writes, “the manager” (Bragg himself) “has secured the services of his wife to keep him out of Mexico.” Or a singer, Madame Rosa Lee Tyler, who keeps skipping rehearsals for lucrative vaudeville gigs in other cities. “Now, madame,” Bragg writes, rather indiscreetly, “if you miss another rehearsal of the great Ethiopic classic play called Ahjah you will be fined ten dollars. The manager of the Ahjah don’t care about you on big time. You must stick to your contracts, or be sued.” Meanwhile, “Miss Hazel Elliott, little 3-year-old girl, has been chosen to be a fairy princess . . .” We learn that the X. L. tailor shop has “been engaged to make all the Nubian soldiers’ costumes,” meaning you had better get by there fast if you need anything done. And finally, a small, solitary peek through the keyhole into Bragg’s domestic existence, the only one we have for this wonderful life: he has cast his daughter in a role. “Miss Lumie Katie Bragg will be the goddess of winds,” he writes, “in the great Ethiopic classic play.” The problem is that during one crucial scene, the script called for the Goddess of Winds to be buried alive and resurrected, “to show that her spirit will return immediately.” Lillian, his wife, objected. She didn’t want her daughter prematurely interred in front of the whole community. Desperate to keep this moment in the story, he tries to bribe her. “Mrs. C.S.C. Bragg has been offered a large salary by the management of Ahjah,” he tells us. “Mrs. Bragg is thinking it over.”

In the fall of 1914, just as he could finally feel the momentum gathering, Bragg was hit with another health crisis. Evidently it wasn’t just deafness that troubled his ears, he also had pain, or an unbearable ringing. It was decided that he needed “a new electric ear insert,” and also that, “An operation is necessary.” It was this emergency that led to the second benefit organized for Bragg. “A number of the leading theatrical artists have volunteered to give their services at the New Monogram Theater,” reported the Defender. A week later the paper added optimistically, “All visiting actors at any playhouse in the city will do a turn in the monster benefit.”

Bragg, from the midst of his suffering, wrote a piece himself for the Defender, to advertise the benefit. He had the perch, and he needed the press. It is to this piece—which is to say, to Bragg’s instinct for self-promotion—that we owe his fateful utterance on the origins of the blues. He is telling us about his aforementioned friend Will Abel, bandleader and stage manager at the Mineral Springs Café on the Stroll. Not much is known about Abel. He was a multi-instrumentalist. He sang alto and could play the tuba. Bragg mentions him several times in his column, once calling him “the prince of entertainers.” And now Abel has agreed to perform at the benefit. The sentence again: “Mr. William Abel, the race’s greatest descriptive singer, will sing the first Blues song, entitled . . .”

Let us pause to take note that an African American journalist and entertainer is speaking to us in 1914 and is about to give his vote for the “first blues song.” No white writer has thought to ask this question yet. The blues are still being born, but Bragg is looking back. We look back at him and with him. What does he see, and what does he say? What song does he name, and what songwriter?

The song is “Curses.”

But there is no song by that title in 1914.

And the songwriter, this person who in Bragg’s estimation wrote and sang the first blues song, this Mr. Paul Dresser?

He was an obese white man.

From the middle part of Indiana.

And a legend.

Part II: The Curse of the Dreamer will appear in the Spring 2017 issue.

John Jeremiah Sullivan was born in Louisville, Kentucky. He is a writer for the New York Times Magazine and an editor at the Paris Review.

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