Mamie Smith, Queen of the Blues
What's your favorite genre of music? Country? Jazz? Blues? Rock? Folk? Hip Hop? Rap? Pop? I'd like to let you in on a little secret. Unless it's symphonic or operatic, Black people created it. This is something I didn't fully understand until college, where I was lucky enough to take Jazz History and History of African American (or just... American) Popular Music with Doc Woods in college. Doc deserves a blog post all to himself at some point. One of the things I loved most about Doc was his absolute reverence for Black women in music. And one of the first he told us about in History of African American Popular Music was Mamie Smith, Queen of the Blues.
To quickly give some background: the roots of American blues lay on southern plantations. Black people enslaved there sang in the fields, and the blues genre can be traced to African spirituals, African chants, work songs, and field hollers. Music was an expression of solidarity and of protest. After emancipation, African American musicians sought a new sound that still paid tribute to their musical roots, and the blues was born. Characterized by 'bent' or 'blue' notes (outside of the standard Western scale, likely originating in field work songs), the blues evoke feelings of longing, loss, and desire. It started to pick up popularity, but it was Black, and in the late 19th- and early 20th Century, that was a problem. White music moguls insisted there was no market for African American or "race" recordings.
Then came Mamie Smith. We don't know a whole lot about her early years, but scholars believe she was born in Cincinnati in 1883. By age 10, she was a touring, professional vaudeville entertainer. By age 20, she was the star of Made in Harlem at the Lincoln Theater. Perry Bradford, who produced that show, had also written a song called "Crazy Blues." 101 years ago this month, Bradford brought Mamie Smith into a recording studio and she laid down the vocal track for what is considered the first blues song on record. To say it was a success would be a massive understatement. Selling over a million copies in its first year, "Crazy Blues" simultaneously launched Mamie Smith into stardom and wealth, proved that African American music did indeed have a market, and brought Black women front and center in popular music. She paved the way for some of the greats: Bessie Smith, Mama Rainey, Ida Cox, and others. And she has often been cited as the musical inspiration for famous musicians up until this day.
In the 1920s and 30s, Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds toured major cities in the US and performed for thousands of people, diverse and typically segregated. For her concerts, Mamie developed a signature look that made her instantly recognizable: stylish and elaborate gowns fit for a queen. Her favorite was made of white silk and she paired it with an ostrich feather headdress and fan. (Doc Woods loved to talk about her wardrobe in class.) She was a national and international star, and she truly defined the blues with her captivating performances. I think it is as important to talk about her death as her life. Mamie Smith lost virtually everything in the stock market crash of 1929, and when she died in 1946 she was buried in an unmarked grave in Frederick Douglass Memorial Park on Staten Island. She was not honored with a headstone until 2014, nearly 70 years later. Isn't that strange? Well, perhaps not. Black musicians have been repeatedly overlooked throughout history, even the Queen of the Blues. But we can honor her by keeping her story alive, and by listening to "Crazy Blues" and imagining the ostrich-feather adorned powerhouse who sang it.