Dance moves: Blues explosions, 1914-17


The music blog 20jazzfunkgreats is charting 20th-century 'periods of innovation' spurring the evolution of music to dance to. In the latest instalment, they look at how America got the blues

9th March 2016

The ballroom, fish tail, funky butt, squat, slow drag, snake hips, mule walk and strut – all dances popular with blues aficionados during that genre's initial incarnation in the early part of the 20th century as populist dance music.

If you think the blues starts with BB King and ends with John Mayall, then you might be a little surprised by the below footage of blues fans in 1914…

Not an Eric Clapton guest solo in sight!

The second edition of our Dancing music in the C20 series examining periods of innovation in dance music from 1900 to 1999 follows ragtime to its logical progression into early blues. (Again, with the caveats that we are looking purely at the history of recorded music, rather than oral folk song, or improvised or live music traditions.)

Blues historian Elijah Wald identifies a tune called I Got The Blues as the first published blues song (in 1908), penned by an Italian-American composer, Antonio Maggio.

Sold as "an up-to-date rag" that was "respectfully dedicated to all those who have the Blues", Maggio's 12-bar ditty is a clear evolution of the ragtime sound that we looked at in our last instalment.

The term 'blues' does not come into popular parlance for some years, yet, though. And there was little other music resembling this new descendent of ragtime, until a flurry of sheet-music publications in late 1912 by the bandleader, music teacher and composer WC Handy. The first blues recording was one of Handy's tunes, Memphis Blues, performed by the Victor Military Band in 1914.

At this point, blues was vaudeville music – a thing of ventriloquists' acts and minstrel shows. The music was largely instrumental, still mostly informed by the military band and the march-like aspects of ragtime.

Handy – who, like Scott Joplin with ragtime, could uncontroversially be deemed the chief architect of this blues era – was black but he didn't identify this new kind of dance music as being innately African-American, as it is now. If anything he displayed a surprisingly withering attitude towards musicians of his own race, compared with the affection he had for the Greek and Armenian singers who interpreted his songs; and for vaudeville entertainers who, he noted, always had an ear out for a novelty.

And as a novelty, Handy's new music was rapidly emulated by dance bands and vaudeville orchestras around America, as our Spotify playlist proves:

In his excellent history of the blues, Escaping The Delta, Elijah Wald compares this 1910s proto-blues dance fad with the milieu of soundalikes that accompanied Britney Spears' rise to fame in the late 1990s.

"No one involved in the blues was calling this music art," he says. "It was working-class pop music, and its purveyors were looking for immediate sales, with no expectation that their songs would be remembered once the blues vogue had passed."

And yet Wald admits that "out of this money-grubbing, hit-centered world" came a lot of superb music, and [the fact] that the DNA of practically all black American popular music can be traced back to this era and sound.

He explains:

"It has been common for historians to mention this early blues craze, then jump directly to 1920, when Mamie Smith's Crazy Blues became the first major vocal hit by a black singer singing principally to black record buyers. This seems quite natural to those of us raised on the fiction that tastes evolved more slowly in the past than they do now; but not even the rock 'n' roll era saw faster and more dramatic changes in American music than the period from the teens to the thirties. This was the height of the modernist wave, with the world shaken by World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the Great Depression. Fashions changed at a dazzling clip, and musical styles swept in and out, or underwent complete transformations at a pace that makes five or six years a significant stretch of time."

"The jump from Handy's sheet music to Smith's recording is particularly misleading, as is the frequent listing of Crazy Blues as the first blues record. As far as I can tell, the mistake grew out of the fact that so much of the early historical writing on blues was done by people with progressive political views, who were celebrating the music as a vital cultural expression of black Americans. Obviously, this approach is vital in many contexts, and blues has deep roots in black culture, but the story is more complicated than that. Blues was pop music, and pop music rarely fits a simple political or cultural agenda."

Sociologist and anthropologist Katrina Hazzard-Donald suggests this early blues era was more emancipatory than perhaps Wald gives it credit for being, however. In a new America, where African-Americans were no longer slaves, but segregated 'equals', African traditions and characteristics were no longer repressed by white slavemasters, and so took on a new displaced identity. Ritualistic and religious dancing became secular, and the dancers – unencumbered by Euro-American conventions – more libidinous.

In his autobiography, Father of The Blues, Handy himself documented a shift in Americans' attitudes to dancing during this early part of the 20th century. When a guitar-mandolin-double-bass trio of his were performing at a dance in 1905, he was baffled by a request to play "some of our native music"; so instead had his band churn out "one of those over-and-over again strains that seem to have no very clear beginning and certainly no ending at all… It was not really annoying or unpleasant. Perhaps 'haunting' is a better word for it… The dancers went wild."

A few years later, when performing his song Mr Crump (the vocal version of Memphis Blues) with a small orchestra, Handy witnessed another dance floor epiphany:

"We were all settled into our chairs. I flashed the sign and the boys gave. Feet commenced to pat. A moment later there was dancing on the sideways below. Hands went in the air, bodies swayed like reeds on the banks of the Congo… In the office buildings about, white folks pricked up their ears. Stenographers danced with their bosses. Everybody shouted for more."

And Handy's music was genuinely multicultural. He introduced Italian rhythmic quirks and the the Spanish habanera to his blues – a viral music that spliced and mutated through Cuban, Creole and African traditions throughout the centuries. Although Scott Joplin had already experimented with the habanera in his rags prior to its adoption in blues, Handy recalled first encountering the rhythm in the piece Maori by William H Tyler:

"I observed that there was a sudden, proud and graceful reaction to the rhythm… White dancers, as I had observed them, took the number in stride. I began to suspect that there was something Negroid in that beat."

In our last instalment, we commented on the irony that a primarily African-American music – ragtime – was represented solely by white musicians and entertainers in its initial recording phase, and looked at some of the reasons for that disparity.

If we break down the components of our Spotify playlist of the first blues recordings, we can see the early signs of a shift in recording demographic – this time, about 63 per cent of the performers are white musicians. Some of these musicians were professional early adopters – Charles A Prince, for instance, was one of the first ever recording musicians, having worked as a pianist for the New York Phonograph Company as early as 1891.

The first widely known singer of blues songs was Marion Harris, a white vaudeville star with a broadway background. In our playlist she is accompanied by two other early blues singers, baritone rag singer Arthur Collins and the Jewish-American actor, comedian and entertainer Asa Yoelson.

Collins had some previous with performing 'coon songs' – the racist caricature of ragtime – but Yoelson, more commonly known as Al Jolson, went as far as performing in blackface.

By the end of the decade, Jolson was the biggest star on Broadway, and he was the biggest advocate for 'black' music.

In our 2016 world, it is particularly difficult to reconcile the notion that a practitioner of a thing we find as repugnant and instinctively 'wrong' as blackface could be associated with any kind of positive cultural contribution. Yet Jolson was thought of by many to be what we might consider in modern terms as an ally.

This is difficult to stomach in an era where cultural appropriation is a predominant concern among progressives, who are quick to condemn white entertainers such as Gwen Stefani or Katy Perry for adopting the iconography of non-white cultures. Yet at his funeral in 1950, representatives of the Negro Actors Guild lined the way for Jolson's procession. Soul singer Jackie Wilson referred to Jolson as his most critical influence and blues legend Clarence 'Frogman' Henry said of Jolson: "I loved him. I think he did wonders for the blacks and glorified entertainment."

Why was Jolson accepted by black Americans? "African Americans' embrace of Jolson was not a spontaneous reaction to his appearance in talking pictures," writes film historian Charles Musser. "In an era when African Americans did not have to go looking for enemies, Jolson was perceived a friend."

In the teens, America was still adjusting to a new national identity that was not defined by slavery. Jolson frequently performed his renditions of blues, jazz and ragtime standards in the blackface idiom, which had already been popularised by proponents of 'coon song', but he was also an anomalously outspoken anti-discrimination activist who counted Cab Calloway and Bojangles Robinson as friends. His blackface performances did not adhere to the "dim-witted, lazy, buffoonish, superstitious, happy-go-lucky and musical" caricatures of minstrelsy, in favour of setting up his gags at the expense of white characters; so some critics have suggested that Jolson was subtly subverting or parodying the idea of 'white supremacy'.

Whether that is contextually accurate or not almost feels impossible to say now. Even if Jolson's actions were obliquely well-intentioned, to be honest, it is hard not to read the scenario as an ancient precursor of 'the Ali G issue', where the intention of the set-up may well be to derive humour from stuffy white establishment figures confused by how to respond to a man whose race they can not accurately determine, but the appeal for many viewers was simply that of being 'allowed' to laugh at signifiers of 'black' identity.

Jolson reportedly felt a strong kinship with black people, and drew many parallels between African and Jewish traditions, music and culture. But the idea of race as performative can never not be fraught. The recent revelation that the president of a Washington state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was a white woman who presented as black, because that was how she self-identified, was received warmly by no one, so retrospectively affording Al Jolson a free pass feels a little weird, even if we are talking a difference in history of 100 years.

Even so, prior to Jolson, black culture had just not been a component of mainstream entertainment, of art, of culture in America. The common complaint against Elvis, of stealing and monetising black music, may also apply to Jolson, yet at least his racial transgressions gouged open a previously non-existent interface between black culture and white America. As support for this, Jolson's Wikipedia page cites poet, playwright and critic Amiri Baraka, who wrote that "the entrance of the white man into jazz did at least bring him much closer to the Negro... the acceptance of jazz by whites marks a crucial moment when an aspect of black culture had become an essential part of American culture."

Looking at the argument from the other end of the telescope, however, could it simply have been that African-Americans tolerated Jolson because, in an era where black Americans lacked access to resources and technology, and recordings of blues and jazz music were still largely performed by white entertainers, he represented their one chance to listen to the music they liked on the gramophone or wireless?

Either way, it is perhaps not surprising that some blues experts choose to regard Crazy Blues, Mamie Smith and 1920 as the real year zero of the blues – the point when black music was reclaimed for black audiences, and not rinsed through an array of problematic filters for the appeasement of whites in a brutally segregated New World.

A version of this article was originally published on 20jazzfunkgreats


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