February 14th, 1920 marks a seminal moment in the history of the blues, and perhaps in the whole history of popular music.
One hundred years ago today, African American vocalist Mamie Smith stepped into the recording studios of the Okeh Phonograph Company in New York City to record ‘That Thing Called Love’ and ‘You Can’t Keep A Good Man Down’. Upon their release in August 1920, these two titles would become the first commercially released recordings by an African American woman.
Smith is now most frequently associated with her recording of ‘Crazy Blues’, recorded on August 10, 1920. ‘Crazy Blues’ sold over 70,000 copies within the first month of its release, and kick started the production of what were referred to at the time as ‘race’ records: that is, recordings of African American performers marketed to African American consumers.
But Smith’s recording career had begun before this point, first with an audition session on January 10th, 1920, and a full session on February 14th. When the recordings from this session were released the following August, they sold over 10,000 copies; this prompted Okeh to book Smith for a second recording session, which would produce ‘Crazy Blues’.
Given the meteoric success and influence of ‘Crazy Blues’, what makes Smith’s earlier recordings so worthy of commemoration? When we consider foundational events in history, it’s easy to focus on one event or ‘watershed moment’, and forget the circumstances and actions that led up to that moment. Smith’s recordings of ‘That Thing Called Love’ and ‘You Can’t Keep A Good Man Down’ help us to understand the historical processes that made iconic recordings like ‘Crazy Blues’ possible. And, more importantly, these recordings help us understand the story of how African Americans were able to break down the music industry’s pervasive racial barriers and enter the recording studio.
Mamie Smith was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1883. Like many African American entertainers at the turn of the century, she began her musical career in vaudeville, first with an act called the Four Dancing Mitchells, and then the Tutt Brothers’ show The Smart Set. She left Cincinnati for Harlem in 1913, immersing herself in the neighbourhood’s thriving nightlife, before joining composer Perry Bradford’s Maid in Harlem revue at the Lincoln Theater in 1918.
Yet, while African American culture was booming in the theatres and clubs of urban centres like Harlem, black performers were conspicuously absent from a new form of musical dissemination, the sound recording. One reason for this was ostensibly commercial, if unsurprisingly prejudiced: emerging record companies – all owned by whites – erroneously assumed that African Americans had neither the means nor the interest in purchasing records, the bulk of which were dedicated to more ‘refined’, Eurocentric forms of culture like marching bands, opera, and other classical works.*
The other reason was altogether more invidious. Since the early nineteenth century, American popular culture had been predicated on the minstrel show. White entertainers, ‘blacked up’ with burnt cork, performed stereotyped songs and comedy routines based on what white audiences believed black music sounded like. For the vast majority of white listeners, characters like ‘zip coon’, ‘mammy’, and ‘jim crow’ stood as personifications of black culture and expression.
The global success of minstrelsy during the nineteenth century gave rise to what music historian Karl Hagstrom Miller describes as a ‘minstrelsy paradigm’ in turn-of-the-century American popular music. According to Miller, the minstrelsy paradigm held that music and culture was performative. By donning burnt cork and costume, performers could ‘play’ not only characters, but entire cultures too, whether African American, Italian, Irish, Jewish, Chinese, or one of the many other diaspora communities present in American society.
Consequently, even by the early 1920s, neither industry figures nor audiences considered it necessary to have black artists performing black music. Even though blues music was being composed and performed onstage by African Americans, the singers who first put this material onto disc, like Marion Harris and Sophie Tucker, were white.
This state of affairs did not go uncontested, however. Perry Bradford, a Harlem-based composer and pianist, was convinced that putting an African American performer into the recording studio would ignite not only a new vogue for blues music, but would open up a new market of African American musical consumers. Bradford badgered Okeh’s musical director Fred Hager repeatedly to arrange a session to record his newest songs, with an African American woman on vocals: ‘There’s fourteen million Negroes in our great country’, Bradford recalls saying to Hager in his 1965 autobiography, ‘and they will buy records if recorded by one of their own’.
In the end, Hager did not directly acquiesce to Bradford’s petitions: he booked a session to record Bradford’s new songs, but with Sophie Tucker on lead vocals. But when Tucker fell ill and was unable to attend, Bradford engineered her replacement with Mamie Smith, a seasoned contralto then performing in his latest Harlem show. In doing so, Bradford and Smith succeeded in breaking one of many racial barriers in American entertainment.
‘African American Performers on Early Sound Recordings 1892-1916’, Online Text, Music Division, Library of Congress,<https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200038862/>.
Bradford, Perry, Born With the Blues: The True Story of the Pioneering Blues Singers and Musicians in the Early Days of Jazz (New York: Oak Publications, 1965).
Dixon, Robert, and John Godrich, Recording the Blues (New York: Stein and Day, 1970).
Horton, Luke, ‘Perry Bradford: The man who sold the blues’, Australasian Journal of American Studies, 32.2 (December 2013), pp. 13-26.
Kenney, William Howland, Recorded Music in American Life: The Phonograph and Popular Memory, 1890-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
Miller, Karl Hagstrom, Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).
Sampson, Henry T., Blacks in Blackface: A Sourcebook on Early Black Musical Shows (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2014).
*In fact, the Chicago Defender had drawn attention to the popularity of gramophone records amongst African Americans, as well as the paucity of African American performers that could be heard on disc, as early as 1916.