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Staging the Blues
From Tent Shows to Tourism
By Paige A. McGinley
Duke University PressCopyright © 2014 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
THE BLUES ACTRESS
Sometime after 1923, Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, already famous from decades of touring with various tent shows, as well as her more recent recordings for Paramount, became known for a stage entrance that gestured to her dual status as both a theatrical and recording star. Ruby Walker, who saw Rainey perform in a 1925 show in Birmingham that Walker attended with her aunt Bessie Smith, has provided the most complete account of this coup de théâtre. Near the conclusion of the variety evening that culminated in Rainey's act, the Wildcats Jazz Band assembled on stage; collectively, the audience began to call out "the Phaaantuhm." Walker initially assumed that this cry was a reference to The Phantom of the Opera, a newly released silent film enjoying widespread popularity at the time. But the call referred to Rainey herself. Her presence was duly conjured by the Wildcats Jazz Band's instrumental blues and the audience's enthused chant: "The Phaaantuhm! The Phaaantuhm!" The curtain rose, revealing a giant prop replica of a Victrola; a chorus dancer began to play a similarly outsized prop record on the phonograph. From inside the Victrola, not yet visible to spectators, Rainey began to sing her wildly popular "Moonshine Blues," its lyrics flaunting the strictures of Prohibition. At a climactic moment in the song, she emerged from the boxy set piece, glittering in a famously extravagant gown and jewels, to the great delight of her audience.
Rainey's spectacular entrance mimicked her arrival in private homes by way of the Victrola, its fabulous stagecraft capturing the magic of the new technology of the phonograph, especially its disembodiment of sonic production. The phonograph's ability to conjure absent voices was its most novel quality; the iconic trademark image for the Victor Talking Machine Company that frequently ran alongside advertisements for race records in the Chicago Defender featured a small dog, curiously sniffing into the external horn of a gramophone, investigating the source of the sound. This well-known logo, drawn from Francis Barraud's painting His Master's Voice (1899), represented phonograph advertising's exploitation of Victorian tropes of grief—namely, the return of the voice of the dead (see figure 1.1). The dog recognizes the voice of his deceased master, thus revealing both the affective power of the talking machine and its power to resurrect those who have been (only temporarily) lost. Rainey's arrival scene, repeated nightly under tents and on indoor vaudeville stages, staged a thrilling resurrection; she was, on her terms, the phantom of the opera.
Though celebrated for its novelty, Rainey's dazzling entrance bore an uncanny resemblance to the performances some decades earlier of Henry "Box" Brown, a Virginia slave who made his escape by mailing himself to freedom in a crate in 1849. For years after, he commemorated his flight by reenacting his triumphant emergence from the box, marking his rebirth by singing. Touring on the British show circuit, Brown linked his "unboxing" to his newfound career as a mesmerist and conjurer, corporeally suturing his emergence from the box with the return of the dead, a connection further established by Samuel Rowse's 1851 lithograph, The Resurrection of Henry Box Brown at Philadelphia (see figure 1.2). A theatrical echo of Brown's famed escape, unboxing, and theatrical stardom, Rainey's arrival scene dramatized the collapse of space and time enabled by recording technology; it also, inversely, emphasized the actual distance traveled by the performer—and by the enormous set piece—to the venue itself. The mechanics of the tour and, implicitly, the labor required to transport the outsized Victrola were placed on display for an audience of eager spectators, many of whom had traveled their own lengthy distances to witness this theatrical display by a touring actress-singer. Night after night the Victrola act highlighted Rainey's fame as a touring entertainer, repeatedly establishing both her stardom and her geographic command.
While their recordings made them famous to the world, recognizing Rainey's and Smith's work as actresses, singers, dancers, and producer-entrepreneurs more accurately represents their careers in show business in the early decades of the twentieth century. Blues singing, or something like it, was likely a part of Rainey's early act—she told the musicologist John Wesley Work Jr. that she incorporated blues into her show in 1902—but until she recorded for Paramount in 1923, she was primarily known as a theatrical star, alternately described in the pages of the Indianapolis Freeman as an actress, singer, dancer, producer, wardrobe mistress, monologist, and comedienne. Traveling troupes, such as the Rabbit's Foot Minstrels, the Georgia Smart Set, and Silas Green from New Orleans, were very much a presence in recreational life in the South, especially the Mississippi Delta, where blues emerged in the early decades of the twentieth century as both "vaudeville" and "downhome." Rainey's contralto belt and humorous treatment of rural subjects of interest, such as the dreaded but cunning boll weevil, cultivated a stage act of glamour and spectacle for a largely rural audience. Smith, Rainey's colleague and friendly rival, also came up as a performer on the vaudeville and tent-show circuits. While Smith ultimately spent more time in the urban Northeast than Rainey did, she toured the South regularly in tent shows, and she and Rainey toured together for a short time in the Rabbit's Foot Minstrels in 1915.
A full consideration of Rainey's and Smith's live theatrical blues careers prompts a recognition of the adjacency of popular theater and popular music in the early decades of the twentieth century and a reassessment of the classic blues tradition and its legacy. Close investigation of the itinerant performances of both Rainey and Smith, arguably the two most well-known theatrical blues stars of the teens and twenties, shows how their tours participated in the shaping of a black public during a period of enormous geographic, social, and cultural transition. Cumulatively appearing before audiences of many thousands, Smith's and Rainey's performances are legible within contemporary theatrical conventions and debates of their day, pushing back against representations of the South that had come to dominate theatrical practice and staging a counterpoint to black bourgeois performances of uplift. By manipulating—indeed, inventing—conventions of black stardom, Rainey and Smith styled themselves as actresses for particular ends. Their embrace of the role of actress allowed them not only to play with expressions of sexual and economic desire but also to fashion a model of black womanhood that was, above all, capable of protean transformation. Vigilant against the reductive aesthetics of dramatic realism and the assumptions about identity and authenticity it invited, these stars both invoked and undermined a persona of the self, highlighting the theatrical construction of the star on stage.
With the notable exceptions of Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff's Ragged but Right and Peter Muir's Long Lost Blues, most key works on the emergence of blues treat the theatrical background of many blues musicians, especially female singers, as a footnote. But most American audiences, both black and white, became aware of blues in theatrical venues and in combination with theatrical entertainments—as one element of the traveling tent shows, circuses, vaudeville teams, and black minstrel entertainments that crisscrossed the United States, particularly the South and the Midwest, in the early decades of the twentieth century. Tent shows were constantly on tour throughout the rural South, as were vaudeville acts and, sometimes, musical-comedy imports from Northern cities, such as George Walker and Bert Williams's Abyssinia. These vaudeville and musical-comedy acts traveled from theater to theater on what was to become the Theater Owner's Booking Association (TOBA) circuit, while the tent shows were set up in outdoor sites in more rural environments. Though especially prominent in the teens and twenties, these tours began in the early years of the century and persisted, in the case of the Rabbit's Foot Minstrels, until 1950, even as other traveling road shows (particularly those with more urban routes) succumbed to the economic pressure of the Great Depression and the popularity and affordability of luxurious movie palaces. Over the course of Rainey's and Smith's careers, the race-records industry powerfully segmented popular music from live performance, just as the burgeoning art-theater movement pried so-called legitimate theater away from the musically rich variety shows. Rainey, Smith, and countless others, however, kept theatrical performance and blues singing deeply integrated. One of the most popular and prominent of the tent shows was Tolliver's Smart Set, described by Abbott and Seroff as "a freewheeling variety show" that included blues singing in addition to wire walkers, trapeze artists, sketch comedians, and monologists. It was under Tolliver's big tent that Ma and Pa Rainey came to prominence as the "Assassinators of the Blues."
Theatrical blues singing developed during a period when popular music and popular theater were deeply intertwined. As David Savran suggests, popular theater and black vernacular music (ragtime, swing, blues, and jazz) were seen as roughly equivalent and were performed in shared venues: the vaudeville house, the minstrel tent, and the cabaret. The shows on Benjamin Franklin Keith's circuit of theaters "undermined the distinction between music and theater"; its houses were architectural and conceptual sites where theater, broadly construed, and jazz, broadly construed, intersected in early twentieth-century performance. Simultaneously, burgeoning art and little-theater movements felt the need to cement the superiority of their endeavors and to "defeat" jazz in order to become a "sanctuary for sacred art"; they did so by emphasizing the distinct characteristics of their "legitimate" theater and by quickly elevating the playwright Eugene O'Neill to the status of patron saint. This anxiety about art theater's legitimacy mirrored the fretful response of European classical-music aficionados to the threat of jazz. Not coincidentally, the unease about the hybrid aesthetics of "jazzed theater and theatricalized jazz" arose during a moment of widespread white concern about miscegenation more generally. As massive demographic changes wrought by economic migrations brought urban whites and African Americans into contact in unprecedented numbers, racial hatred, lynching, and intimidation were one set of responses to perceived racial mixing and amalgamation; maintaining the so-called purity of art forms was another. But the overlap between theater and jazz was not just happening on New York stages, in Harlem nightclub floor shows, or in the vaudeville houses of the Keith circuit. The "big shows" of Tolliver's Smart Set and other tented performances of the Southern touring circuits were also sites of generic overlap between black vernacular music and popular theater. What Savran claims about the mostly white vaudeville of the Keith- and Albee-owned theater circuits was also true for black vaudeville and touring tent-minstrel shows, which, as a rule, combined the entertainments of bands, orchestras, and singers with monologues and comic skits. Thus, black theatrical entertainment and early women's blues share a tangled history: their performances took place on the same stages, often using the same actors, songs, and conventions.
Understanding these performance conventions requires an imaginative leap through—beyond—the familiar in-studio amplified recordings of the songs that circulate so widely today. The demands on a tent-show performer varied significantly from those placed on a singer in a recording studio. Live, unamplified tent-show and vaudeville singing relied on the power of the singer's voice and the expressivity of the dancer's body to address a crowd. The early recordings of both Rainey and Smith offer contemporary researchers not an exact replica of tent-show singing but vocal expression in the midst of modification, a compromised meeting point between the theatrical entertainer and the demands placed on her in the recording studio. Though these recordings transmit invaluable sonic information and affect, they provide imperfect evidence when it comes to live performance; these songs were acoustically, theatrically, and affectively distinct when performed in a tent or vaudeville show. The architectural and technological requirements of the recording studio—even prior to the introduction of the microphone—were very different from the physical conditions of the tent-show environment. In the early Paramount recordings that used an external horn, one can hear Rainey only somewhat successfully holding back the belt that made her audible to patrons in the last row of the theater. Due to technological limitations, her alto voice recorded far less well than the head voice of the more classically trained sopranos who would follow her. As microphone singing and electric recording became more widespread and technically refined, singing styles changed; the "crooning" enabled—even demanded—by microphone singing produced both the (apparently autobiographical) interior life of the singer and a sense of private intimacy with the listener that annihilated the space between self and other. For the most part, listeners experienced these recorded performances in the privacy of their homes, either alone or with a small group of intimates.
The significance of dance and choreography to early blues is a profound example of a theatrical component to the genre that was repressed by the music industry's focus on mass production and circulation of records. If "railroad blues" were widely encouraged by record-industry executives, the songs privileged at live shows were ones that invited a particularly witty or complex bit of stagecraft or choreography. Songs with choreography or demonstrable action embedded in the lyrics (such as Rainey's beloved "Black Bottom" or Smith's "Cakewalking Blues") were, for obvious reasons, appealing to singer-dancers. "Moonshine Blues," the opening number that contained Rainey's famous entrance, offered the star the opportunity to swing her head "'round and around"; her audience could find her "wrigglin' and a-rockin', howlin' like a hound," as the band set the pace of the bouncing, rhythmic shifts. When Smith sings "Moonshine Blues" on record, it is a morose bereavement; for Rainey, the song is a dizzy, rhythmic celebration. "Here I'm upon my knees," she cried; as an experienced performer and skilled dancer, Rainey built plenty of opportunities for choreography and other theatrical bits into her songs. Sometimes a song organized an entire scene. The famed Thomas A. Dorsey, known as the father of modern gospel, toured with Rainey as the leader of her Wildcats Jazz Band in the mid-twenties. He described the mise-en-scène of the tours as extensive: "We carried about four trunks of scenery, of drops and things you could fold up there. And we'd have lightin' effects, the stage manager give 'em to us." Regarding the performance of "Stormy Sea Blues," he portrayed a scene that was suggestively operatic in scale: "She'd ... do whatever what you do in a storm. The storm started to raging, you try to run here and run there, and get away, and you become excited. Oh, yeah, she had a good act there. Yeah, that was one of the best numbers on the show for a long time."
ROAD SHOWS: THE THEATRICAL TOUR AND ITINERANT PUBLICS
Migration is the backdrop to the performances and the period that I explore in this chapter. Remaining cognizant of the migration narratives that are chronicled in blues lyrics, I focus my attention less on those who migrated from South to North and instead on the cultural experiences and productions of those who stayed behind, who did not move, or who moved within the South. Statistics persuasively chart the epic scale of the Great Migration, the six to eight million who moved from the South to Steel Belt and northeastern cities, and the demographic, sociological, cultural, and economic shifts they engendered. These shifts are not to be underestimated, but we should not neglect to observe that the rural South remained home to millions of black residents. Though the percentage of black residents declined gradually during the first three decades of the twentieth century, the black population of Coahoma County, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, fluctuated between 77 and 88 percent of the overall total population. That is to say: in spite of mass migration, the rural South was home to a large and dynamic populace that, particularly before the widespread availability of the record player and movie houses, maintained its own distinct regional entertainment culture. One of my goals in this chapter is to draw attention to the forms of popular entertainment that were central to the life and leisure of the rural South—forms that, as we shall see in the chapters that follow, had long and vivacious afterlives, far beyond their local origins. No less modern than their urban counterparts, these traveling performers of tent shows and TOBA acts traversed a landscape infused by the possibility of a new life elsewhere, as well as the psychic rupture and loss engendered by the departure of loved ones. For those kin who remained in places such as Natchez, Yazoo City, and Rosedale, these traveling performers served a unique function in making migration visible and audible, providing aesthetic and affective parameters to a phenomenon impossible to conceive in its totality.
Excerpted from Staging the Blues by Paige A. McGinley. Copyright © 2014 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments vii
Introduction. Beale on Broadway 1
1. Real Personality: The Blues Actress 31
2. Theater Folk: Huddie Ledbetter on the Stage 82
3. Southern Exposure: Transatlantic Blues 129
4. Highway 61 Revisited: Blues Tourism at Ground Zero 177
What People are Saying About This
"This beautifully written and engaging account of how blues has been staged will change for good how theater scholars think of musical performance, and how music scholars think of theater. Paige A. McGinley's observation that 'authenticity is produced theatrically, on stage, in the context of the performance event' deconstructs the binary between authenticity and inauthenticity, allowing her to focus on black agency and subjectivity as it is produced in and through performance."
"Staging the Blues is a much-needed, even game-changing intervention into dominant models for the study of blues music and culture. Based on amazing original research, Paige A. McGinley reassesses what we think we know about the blues, offers bold and insightful analyses of the racial and gendered politics of blues performance and reception, and, crucially, restores critical recognition of the theatricality of the blues and its historical place in traditions of popular performance."