Friday, January 2, 2009

"If you're not moaning, you're not singing the blues"

Mamie Smith, "Crazy Blues", 1920

Bessie Smith, "Nobody Can Bake A Sweet Jellyroll Like Mine", 1923

Bessie Smith, "Yellowdog Blues", 1925

Bessie Smith, "You Gotta Give Me Some", 1929

Bessie Smith, "Do Your Duty", 1933

These days, americans grow up immersed in the blues. The blues is in every type of american music, even country music. Musically speaking, the essence of the blues is the blue note, the subtle and seductive bending of the pitch of the note out of the strict scale so that is falls between the keys of a piano. We all know exactly how it's supposed to sound, exactly how the note should be bent to get that moaning, heart-twisting blues sound that is the heart of any guitar solo that ever existed in rock 'n' roll, and the way that americans sing.

But before 1920 most americans had never heard it.

So, when Crazy Blues was recorded in 1920 by one Mamie Smith, the effect was electric. Now, the band on this record is out of tune, and is no longer considered a great recording, but it is an important historical document, and a million seller that was instantly famous at the time, and changed forever american's idea of how a popular song should be sung.

Americans already knew about the blues from the success of W.C. Handy's St. Louis Blues, but this was sold as sheet music and played on the piano by white americans who had no notion of the blues scale. However, as soon as Crazy Blues came out the real blues sound went viral. Everybody knew that it was the real thing, and how american music had to sound. In the stilted white manner of the time, newspapers published instructions on how to moan like a real negro blues shouter, and African americans wrote in amazement about how white people were shaking their hips, letting it all loose when they sang and generally trying to get as black as possible. Even Fiorello La Guardia, then a republican congressman and later mayor of NYC, hosted a blues singing contest in 1923, and nobody was surprised that all the top contestants were black women.

Bessie Smith, of course, soon became The Empress of the Blues. She remained a superstar right up to her tragic death in a car accident in 1937. Her smooth, strong voice and impeccable phrasing defined what a blues vocal should sound like, and remains the gold standard. She was hard living woman to be reckoned with. The story goes that she was singing a big tent show in the south one night when word got in that some KKK members were coming around to make trouble, and that Bessie had better get out. Instead, she went right outside the tent and confronted the klansmen: "you better just pick them sheets up and run right now, or else I'm gonna get this whole tent out here". That did the trick...

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