With this volume, Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff complete their groundbreaking trilogy on the development of African American popular music. Fortified by decades of research, the authors bring to life the performers, entrepreneurs, critics, venues, and institutions that were most crucial to the emergence of the blues in black southern vaudeville theaters; the shadowy prehistory and early development of the blues is illuminated, detailed, and given substance.
At the end of the nineteenth century, vaudeville began to replace minstrelsy as America's favorite form of stage entertainment. Segregation necessitated the creation of discrete African American vaudeville theaters. When these venues first gained popularity ragtime coon songs were the standard fare. Insular black southern theaters provided a safe haven, where coon songs underwent rehabilitation and blues songs suitable for the professional stage were formulated. The process was energized by dynamic interaction between the performers and their racially-exclusive audience.
The first blues star of black vaudeville was Butler "String Beans" May, a blackface comedian from Montgomery, Alabama. Before his bizarre, senseless death in 1917, String Beans was recognized as the "blues master piano player of the world." His musical legacy, elusive and previously unacknowledged, is preserved in the repertoire of country blues singer-guitarists and pianists of the race recording era.
While male blues singers remained tethered to the role of blackface comedian, female "coon shouters" acquired a more dignified aura in the emergent persona of the "blues queen." Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and most of their contemporaries came through this portal; while others, such as forgotten blues heroine Ora Criswell and her protégé Trixie Smith, ingeniously reconfigured the blackface mask for their own subversive purposes.
In 1921 black vaudeville activity was effectively nationalized by the Theater Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A.). In collaboration with the emergent race record industry, T.O.B.A. theaters featured touring companies headed by blues queens with records to sell. By this time the blues had moved beyond the confines of entertainment for an exclusively black audience. Small-time black vaudeville became something it had never been beforea gateway to big-time white vaudeville circuits, burlesque wheels, and fancy metropolitan cabarets. While the 1920s was the most glamorous and remunerative period of vaudeville blues, the prior decade was arguably even more creative, having witnessed the emergence, popularization, and early development of the original blues on the African American vaudeville stage.
About the Author
Lynn Abbott, New Orleans, Louisiana, works at the Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University. He is the coauthor (with Doug Seroff) of Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889-1895; Ragged but Right: Black Traveling Shows, "Coon Songs," and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz; and To Do This, You Must Know How: Music Pedagogy in the Black Gospel Quartet Tradition, all published by University Press of Mississippi.
Doug Seroff, Greenbrier, Tennessee, is an independent scholar. He is the coauthor (with Lynn Abbott) of Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889-1895; Ragged but Right: Black Traveling Shows, "Coon Songs," and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz; and To Do This, You Must Know How: Music Pedagogy in the Black Gospel Quartet Tradition, all published by University Press of Mississippi.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Saloon-Theaters and Park Pavilions: The Birth of Southern Vaudeville, 1899-1909 7
First Interlude: The Death of J. Ed Green and the Birth of State Street Vaudeville 57
Chapter 2 The Life, Death, and Untold Legacy of Bluesman Butler "String Beans" May 67
Chapter 3 Male Blues Singers in Southern Vaudeville 125
Chapter 4 The Rise of the Blues Queen: Female Blues Pioneers in Southern Vaudeville 161
Second Interlude: Theater Circuits, Theater Wars, and the Formation of the T.O.B.A. 231
Chapter 5 "Yours for Business": The Commercialization of the Blues, 1920-26 249
General Index 389
Song Index 409
Theater Index 417