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IN THE BEGINNING
In mid-nineteenth-century rural Southern America, which is as good a place as any to start this story, music wasn’t something you did. Or, rather, it could have been just one of the things you did, if you did it, like smoking hams, mending the roof and the fences, and hoeing the vegetable patch. Black or white, Northern or Southern, rural life consisted of one job after another, just to stay alive. Sometimes, particularly among African Americans, music accompanied work, as it also did among sailors or excavating crews. “Field hollers” may have been African survivals, and recordings of prisoners in the fields doing agricultural work, giving off with whoops and pieces of melody, sound eerie to our ears. Along with chain gang songs and songs laborers sang while laying or mending railroad tracks, this music gave solidarity to groups of people engaged in common work. White rural people, who often lived close to blacks, especially in farming communities, had their own uses for music: women in particular memorized long ancient stories in the forms of ballads handed down through the generations and often sang them doing “women’s work” like spinning, weaving, or sewing, or else used them as lullabies. Both groups sang communally in church, and both used instruments for socializing and to play music for dancing: fiddle, which the whites had brought with them (along with a lot of its repertoire) from the old country and which blacks had picked up during slavery from the masters; banjo, which was based on a West African instrument called the banjar (among many other names) and, being easily made from things one had around (wood, hide, gut strings), caught on right away; and guitar, which, being store-bought, was precious and at least at first not in common use.
What’s shocking to us these days is the extent to which black string-band music from this era, some of which, performed by old men, was recorded in the 1930s by the black folklorist John Work, sounds like white string-band music. Poor rural people didn’t worry as much about race as they did about survival, and more than one of the early string bands to record in the 1920s was biracial. A good tune was a good tune, and if one group learned it from the other, that was how the process worked; any variation or change was more likely up to the individual than to a folk tradition. But the important thing was, none of it was professional. It was a part of everyday life that existed around events like the annual hog butchering or the happy event of a friend’s visit or a wedding, or simply to blow off steam after a week’s work. It was, in the purest sense of the term, folk music.
Which isn’t to say that America didn’t have professional showbiz back then; it was just limited to the cities. Rural people had neither money nor transportation—nor, in most cases, the inclination—to engage with the wandering troupes of minstrels, light opera singers, and, after 1871, ensembles singing Negro spirituals, who descended from the Fisk Jubilee Singers. This branch of entertainment was for the middle class and up. It was performed by professionals, people who worked at making their art and were paid for it. And except for providing venues, a template for touring, and a few songs leaking into the folk pool, it doesn’t have too much to do with our story, at least not until the very last days of the 1800s, when the phonograph was born.
The earliest phonographs, once the world adopted Emile Berliner’s disc format over Edison’s cylinder, and Berliner’s standard of playing from the outside in rather than Pathé’s inside out, were sturdy furniture. They had to be: the acoustic signal coming off the disc through a steel or cactus-thorn needle needed room for amplification in a large chamber, although the fascinated owners still had to sit close to the machine. You couldn’t play a record in the next room and expect to hear it.
What were people listening to? The kind of music people of their economic class—upper middle and above—might be expected to listen to included classics, light classics, operatic arias, songs from the musical theater that was thriving in New York, patriotic music (John Philip Sousa’s band was popular, and not just for his famous marches, since he composed other things for them), comic sketches from the vaudeville stage (often in Jewish, Negro, or Irish dialect), and the occasional novelty, like a Negro jubilee ensemble singing spirituals or, even more novel, the Dinwiddie Colored Quartet’s mashup of “Dem Bones” with what sounds like a blackface minstrel comedy interlude.
Off the record, independent of this mainstream, some major changes were happening. For one thing, medicine shows, a sort of low-rent spinoff of the touring minstrel show, began to appear in rural Southern America, bringing black and white performers—sometimes together—to communities that had never before seen professional entertainers. They’d play and sing and prepare the locals for a pitch for some miracle drug (mostly alcohol, with additives that could be anything from opium to gasoline) that would do incredible things and was available just until the caravan pulled out of town for a low, low price. The people who performed at these shows were considered lowlifes by polite society, but out in the boondocks, they were visitors from another world. If the medicine show was from far away, they might well be exposing the locals to instrumental styles and even forms of music they’d never heard before. In addition, the better-funded medicine shows handed out “singers,” cheap booklets with some of the songs performed in the show, thereby spreading everything from Stephen Foster songs to hymns and drinking songs to places where they’d been previously unknown. (One “singer” was found to have had half its contents recorded by one act or another during the 1920s and ’30s.) The medicine shows lasted almost a century and became laboratories for young musicians honing their performing skills and welcome employment for entertainers who were too rural for the vaudeville stage.
Starting in the very last years of the nineteenth century, a new musical form emerged out of nowhere in the Deep South. Nobody can pinpoint the place or time when blues was invented, nor does it have a legendary inventor, but it did have a chronicler in the person of W. C. Handy, a trumpet player and bandleader from Memphis, who was famously waiting for a train in the early days of the twentieth century in rural Tutwiler, Mississippi, when a ragged black man with a guitar sat down next to him and, running a knife blade over the strings, began to sing “the weirdest music I ever heard,” improvising lyrics about the train they were waiting for. Handy went on to make much out of his “discovery,” even advertising himself as the “father of the blues,” but blues was an evolution from other black traditions, including the “songster” genre, which survived in the work of “Ragtime Texas” Henry Thomas, Mississippi John Hurt, and Mance Lipscomb, among others, and is responsible for such black ballads as “Frankie and Johnny,” “Stackolee,” and “The Titanic.” Blues was actually something new and easy enough to write: in its classic form, the first two lines repeat, and then a third line closes the thought: “Woke up this morning, blues all around my bed / Woke up this morning, blues all around my bed / I tell you people, they’re the worst blues I’ve ever had.” Some blues told stories, advancing the story (usually of heartbreak) verse by verse. Other blues were made up of what are called “floating verses” like the one just quoted, or the blues would start with a story and go on to floating verses that fit the mood. Either way, the form had the advantage of having spaces between lines where an instrumentalist could play some licks, and the space between verses for more extended solo work.
Blues probably started out being accompanied by guitars, which became more available as mail-order sources like Sears, Roebuck & Company and Montgomery Ward found their way into rural areas, but the form lent itself to the piano, too, which meant that it soon spread to the cities, where blues singers, almost invariably female, wound up on the black vaudeville stages. Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, one of the first to find fame, was a centerpiece of the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, one of the top black touring outfits, and her influence on younger singers was immense.
The rise of urban blues was parallel to and to some extent integrated with the rise of the music that came to be called jazz. Although it was undeniably a popular music—far more popular than some of the other music of its time—jazz only concerns us here as an ingredient of other forms. It’s worth noting that many jazz scholars consider the blues-singing women of the 1920s as jazz musicians while ignoring or discounting rural blues performers. The harmonic structure of blues, however, was with jazz from its very earliest days, and the power of the word is evident in the way songs that aren’t blues at all—W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” to give a prominent example—use the word, if not the form.
If blues was a central ingredient to black music in the Deep South, there was another form that arrived about the same time that was just as important on the eastern seaboard: ragtime. This was a piano-based, composed and notated, syncopated musical form that came into being simultaneously with the earliest jazz—and in many of the same venues. Ragtime might be what the “piano professor” was playing in whorehouses with enough class to have a parlor with a piano, but it quickly escaped its seedy origins to become a fad in vaudeville and the politer parlors of the middle class. Most notably, it was promoted by the sheet music publishers who had Scott Joplin, a black pianist with some training, under contract. Joplin was hardly the only ragtime composer to make money for an ambitious publisher, but his prodigious output included music for small instrumental ensembles and an opera, among other works.
And while ragtime wasn’t particularly transposable to the guitar, its ideas were, and so guitarists who heard pianists playing a form of ragtime called barrelhouse in turpentine camps in Georgia tried out the harmonies and came up with intricate fingerpicking techniques to form melodies on them and invented a guitar style that mimicked the multiple lines and tricky rhythms of the piano music. This became the basis of the black rural popular music of Georgia and the Carolinas.
Another place where ragtime’s ideas showed up was in the medicine shows, where comic songs were common. Again, the chord progressions made a great base for a type of music that became known as hokum, which spread to both the black and white traditions. White medicine show performers like Uncle Dave Macon and Harmonica Frank Floyd salted their repertoires with hokum, and black performers in Memphis made it a signature of the city’s music, as it was largely what the jug bands there played (Gus Cannon of Cannon’s Jug Stompers had a long career with the shows), as well as the successful Memphis Sheiks. Not surprisingly, all these groups were in high demand among the city’s moneyed whites for party entertainment.
These developments happened slowly, and they didn’t all happen in the same places at the same time, since there was no mass media even remotely interested in this minority-interest stuff—and in some places, they didn’t happen at all. But soon after the end of World War I, enough of these new sounds were in evidence for the immense changes that would come in the 1920s and kick off the arrival of a distinctly American wave of music.
Copyright © 2016 by Ed Ward