How ‘Crazy Blues’ Kicked Off the Dangerous and Wonderful Music That Was Going to Ruin America
The more you know about 1920, the more you realize it was a pretty significant year despite the fact that in November we elected perhaps our least significant president, Warren G. Harding.
The New York Times reinforced 1920’s reputation last week with its second extensive article about the 100th anniversary of Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds recording “Crazy Blues.”
Since 1920 was also the year when women finally forced their way into the voting booths, we tried to ban booze and black baseball players formed leagues of their own, it might not seem like a song would become one of the big takeaways from the year.
It was. As the Times article reminds us, “Crazy Blues” reportedly sold more than a million copies — a figure that’s hard to verify, but was large enough to convince the young music industry that black folks would buy records performed by black folks.
“Crazy Blues” also revealed a market for a different kind of song, not as polite as the music industry to that point had preferred. If you’re wondering where that startling song being blasted out of the car beside you at a traffic light came from, part of the answer is Mamie Smith.
The music industry, naturally, cared less about lyrics than sales, being that the smell of money has always been the industry’s favorite scent.
Up until 1920, black musicians had a tiny presence in the music industry, mostly performing light pop, comic or novelty material. After 1920, they became a much larger presence, as record companies started to court markets like jazz, blues and gospel.
For starters, almost every record label large and small wanted to get its own Mamie Smith. Hello, Ma Rainey. Hello, Bessie Smith.
You can draw a direct line from that 1920s explosion to 2020, where the hip-hop beat created by black folks provides the dominant rhythm of popular music. Yet the black music that followed “Crazy Blues” has only occasionally gotten respect commensurate with its influence.
“Crazy Blues” wasn’t the first recorded blues song, or even the first one sung well. White singer Marion Harris, among others, had been recording blues-style tunes for years.
The difference with Mamie Smith, who was by trade a more popular-styled vaudeville singer, was that, first, she was black. Second, blues in her song didn’t stop with lamenting her broken heart.
Nope, after she felt so bad that she thought about killing herself, she decided a better idea was to get a gun, find that no-good man and create some business for the undertaker. Along the way she might also pick up some “hop,” that is, dope. When Mamie said she had the crazy blues, she wasn’t exaggerating.
Now folk songs had explored similar themes for centuries. For the genteel record biz in 1920, it was close to revolutionary.
Nor did the success of “Crazy Blues” make its themes respectable. On the contrary, the music industry for decades pretty clearly felt the blues audience had lower cultural standards than the mostly white audience that appreciated “good” music like classical and the higher-brow pop of an Irving Berlin.
Blues music was widely labeled “race music” and, like its white counterpart “hillbilly music,” was advertised with exaggerated cartoonish stereotypes. It was almost never included in any major label’s respectable main catalog.
The reason was no mystery. Those companies figured cultured mainstream listeners didn’t want to sully their parlors with songs about murder, death, drugs, two-timing, drinking and sex. Especially sex, a popular blues subject with its own language about sweet jelly rolls and “take it right back to the place where you got it.”
Over time, this concern eroded here and there. It never went away. The fingers that wagged at Mamie Smith about moral disintegration would later sequentially wag at the creators of jazz, rhythm and blues, rock ’n’ roll and hip-hop.
The music industry, meanwhile, kept making money off this music while often not trying very hard to defend it. At major labels, in particular, blues artists and audiences were tacitly seen as the lowbrow country cousins about whom you feel slightly embarrassed, but whom you always invite to the picnic because they make the best barbecue.
In the early 1950s, almost a decade after Mamie Smith died, the music industry was still displaying its feelings about morally appropriate music by rewriting rhythm and blues into something suitable for its “mainstream” radio audience.
One of a thousand examples: A line in Joe Turner’s masterful “Shake, Rattle and Roll” was rewritten from “Wearin’ old dresses, sun come shinin’ through” to “Wearin’ those dresses, your hair done up so nice” for the white Bill Haley.
Turner’s song was simply more interesting, and the heartening footnote is that in the end, Turner won. It’s his version that music writers and historians remember, just as we remember “Crazy Blues” even though Perry Bradford’s song wasn’t even a little bit respectable.
You can love Mozart or George and Ira Gershwin and still feel gratified that the music beloved by ordinary folks has a way of poking through and sticking around.
Good job, Mamie Smith.