Reviewed Elsewhere: Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff, eds. The Original Blues: The Emergence of the Blues in African American Vaudeville.

Lars Fischer's picture

Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff, eds. The Original Blues: The Emergence of the Blues in African American Vaudeville. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2017. viii + 420 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-49681-002-1.

The four books published to date by Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff for the University Press of Mississippi deserve the attention of librarians and researchers in African American music history. The first two, Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music 1889–1895 (2002) and Ragged But Right: Black Traveling Shows, "Coon Songs," and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz (2007) treated African American music from 1889 through 1910, including jubilee sacred music, concert songs and arias, brass bands, minstrelsy, domestic and barbershop music making, and ragtime. Their third book, To Do This, You Must Know How: Music Pedagogy in the Black Gospel Quartet Tradition (2013), recovered the training for black sacred quartet singing. This latest book, The Original Blues, takes their exploration of African American vernacular music from 1910 through the mid–1920s. The hardcover editions are bound in signatures, and the dust jackets for the three popular music installments are custom-designed by one of today's leading graphic artists, Chris Ware (the one for The Original Blues deserves framing).

Despite its primary title, The Original Blues emphasizes the "classic" or "vaudeville" style of urban blues singing of the 1920s. That style is certainly not when or how the blues began, as earlier kinds of blues date back to the late 1890s and, before that, can be found in prototypical twelve-measure songs. Vaudeville is also not where the blues began; Abbott and Seroff show in their earlier books that many people first heard the blues not in theaters, but in tent shows and at circus sideshows. But if one recognizes the title not as assertion but as an evocative borrowing of Sara Martin's 1923 record "The Original Blues" (Okeh 8062, 78 rpm), then one may read the book's title according to its functionality. ...

Out of Sight documented the shift of venues for late nineteenth-century African American performers from indoor halls to traveling tent-shows and small troupes of musical entertainers. Ragged But Right showed how the popular music trends of coon songs and ragtime from 1895–1920 set up the public settings and marketplaces for jazz and blues to emerge during the 1910s. To bring the exploration full circle with regard to venues, The Original Blues looks at the theaters and other vaudeville venues where the blues were sung primarily for African American urban audiences during the 1910s and 1920s, and not at the southern barrelhouses, plantations, and street corners where blues guitarists performed. By returning to look at the indoor stages, Abbott and Seroff admit to "completing what could be considered a trilogy" (p. vii). The sources used for all three books include contemporary newspapers for African American readers, each precious issue of which the authors perused, page by page, to find pertinent items. ...

Abbott and Seroff admit in their "Acknowledgements" that they "have only begun to tell the whole story; much ground is left to cover" (p. vii). As the authors acknowledge (p. 288), the Indianapolis Freeman was a key newspaper source for their research, but it folded in 1926, leaving documentation of African American theater and music to the Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier, and some local weekly papers. In spite of limited resources after 1926, the authors could broaden their ongoing project by exploring other types of African American popular music through the 1920s, and continue an endless pursuit of the nature of music that is meant to uplift, and not merely entertain, the souls of African Americans.

Edward KomaraNotes 74, 4 (2018), 658–661.