How blues great Mamie Smith paved the way for Black female musicians and their fans

Written by Andrea Domanick, produced by Rosalie Atkinson

Mamie Smith’s 1920 recording of “Crazy Blues” kicked down a previously locked door for Black female artists and their fans. Photo courtesy of the International Center for Photography, Gift of Daniel Cowin, 1990.

In 1920, jazz singer Mamie Smith released a record called “Crazy Blues.” She was the first Black female singer to record and release a blues song. This kicked down a previously locked door for Black female artists and their fans that kept them out of mainstream music.

Music critic Daphne Brooks says Smith, her fans, and the rallying behind the blues artists that followed her breakout success helped pave the way for the fan armies that continue to surround Black women artists more than a century later. Think Beyonce’s “BeyHive” or Nicki Minaj’s “Barbz.”

Brooks teaches African American Studies at Yale University, and her new book is called “Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound.” She talks with Press Play about how Mamie Smith sparked a cultural revolution for Black music fans.

KCRW: For those who aren’t familiar, tell us who Mamie Smith was.

Daphne Brooks: “She was a vaudeville glamourpuss. She was hoofing it on the vaudeville circuit in the 1910s. She was an extraordinary actor as well as a vocalist in that live setting. But she had aspirations. She hooked up with a songwriter, Perry Bradford, an African American who added his own kind of vision of being able to break through to the recording industry, which ... had turned its nose up to African American popular musicians.

They didn't believe, so the story went, that Black consumers were out there who would buy the blues. And so instead they focused their attention on cutting tracks with folks like Sophie Tucker and Marion Harris, white artists and their renditions of ‘the blues.’ So Mamie Smith just changed the game when she partnered with Perry Bradford and they recorded ‘Crazy Blues’ for Okeh Records in summer of 1920.”

What was it about that particular song that got fans so excited? 

“To a certain extent, there are a lot of blues purists who would say it's not really blues. It sounds very little like Bessie [Smith] or like Ma [Rainey], the classic blues queens who followed her through the door. Mamie’s ‘Crazy Blues’ … had a kind of vaudeville aesthetic to it. And [Mamie] Smith was known for being able to draw on those chops from that theatrical genre in terms of being able to dip into ethnic impersonations and having a big, wide arsenal of a special kind of sentimentalized feeling. 

… It wasn't the recording itself that was the thing that lit the fuse. It was the fact that African Americans were able to hear themselves on record for the first time in a popular context. So what was being marketed as the blues was finally being inhabited by blues artists and songwriters.

The song has some racy lyrics at the end. She says, “Get myself a gun and shoot myself a cop / I ain't had nothing but bad news / I've got the crazy blues.” What was the reaction to those lyrics? 

“I think that there was a general groundswell of energy around these kinds of voicings of anxiety, fear, and rage directed at a police state that has subjugated Black peoples. We have to remember that this recording breaks the year after Red Summer, in which cities all across the country are lit up [with] race massacres. So there's a way in which Perry Bradford and Mamie Smith were collaborating in order to give voice to that widespread communal angst, existential questions about the ways in which police brutality bears down on African American folks’ lives. 

But in terms of documenting what we would think of today in the digital era as ‘likes’ and ‘Black Twitter,’ we didn't have that. So there are archival gaps in terms of the reactions from African American communities. On the record business side, we don't have any documentation, as far as we can tell, of label heads being anxious about that lyric, which is fascinating. What they were looking at were the numbers, the fact that maybe Smith was able to move so many units in such a short period of time after the release of the recording later that year.”

Bessie Smith was one of the Black female blues artists who followed in the footsteps of Mamie Smith. Photo used by permission of Rebecca Reitz. 

Who was buying that recording? Was it mainly Black audiences? Or did it cross over?

“What we think of as crossover means something a little bit different now. It was definitely a record that we know we have numbers for, selling out of various merchant shops and Black communities across the country, and especially the Northeast. But you did have white consumers as well. And some of that is documented in the Black press, as well as the white press, during that period of time. So we could call it an early crossover smash, although the ways that we understand segregated listening communities is a little bit different now.”

After this smash, what happened? How does that change the business for Black artists?

“It was the moment in which label heads knew that they needed to tap into the artistry and genius of Black women's musicianship. So a flurry of signings [with] all of the grades that we were mentioning earlier, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Ethel Waters, Ida Cox. You have to remember that many of these people had been working the theatrical and juke joint circuits for over a decade. 

Plus someone like Ma Rainey, who's coming out of the South in Georgia playing tent shows. She is a hardcore, stone cold veteran by the time that Mamie Smith has her hit. So she ends up coming into the recording studio after Bessie Smith, her protege, once she makes it up into the north in order to cut these records. 

In a way, modern culture was catching up with what was already a phenomenon in Black vernacular culture decades in the making, if we keep in mind especially that blues music is the music of emancipated peoples, right? Angela Davis has written about this in her groundbreaking book, and Toni Morrison too, the ways in which we can pay attention to the fact that a newly emancipated people is laying claim to being able to articulate their own kinds of desires, choose their own partners, create their own domestic intimacies. And so this music predates 1920 by many decades, but this is the moment when it becomes a national phenomenon that the dominant culture actually decides they want to care about for all sorts of lucrative reasons.”

That also encouraged Black women to buy records and go to record stores, which were not considered their provenance or places where they were invited to be or allowed to be.

“Yes. This is something that different folks have asked me about. ‘How can you prove that Black women and girls were actually listening to these records?’ One of my colleagues, Elijah Wald, and I have talked about the fact that — and Angela Davis notes this too — the lyrics themselves were hailing women listeners. These are stories about romance and heartbreak. They also cover the territory of social critique. But we know and can document the ways in which so many Black women were invested in this music because they saw and heard themselves in it. 

As for the record store itself, this is kind of a weird cultural phenomenon. A site that's beloved by me, someone who grew up in the Bay Area going to Tower Records in the ‘70s, ‘80s and early ‘90s ... this was a cultural site that grew out of an investment in trying to sell records. The stores caught up with the phenomenon of the recording industry. And you had a number of African American-owned stores in different parts of the country. everywhere from Dallas to Kansas City to Los Angeles on Central Avenue. 

We know that women were there. One of the public historians, my brilliant sister in Detroit, who goes by the name Marcia Music, and grew up in her father's legendary record shop, Joe Van Battles Music Shop, talks about growing up working in a store and seeing Black women come in. And they were especially pointed about what they were looking for, the exact song, they knew all of the details about the musicians. And it was a way, in telling me this story, of trying to recuperate the fact that Black women care about this history too, and are deeply invested in it.”


Detroit’s Marsha Music recounts her experience growing up and working in a record store in Daphne Brooks’ book “Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound.” Photo courtesy of Marsha Music. 

Draw a line from that to the fandom around Black women artists, like Nicki Minaj’s “Barbz,” though Black women aren’t the only ones who are part of this fandom.

“Absolutely. I heard it from the moment that there was a white ingenue actress on David Letterman in the late ‘90s, who came on and was gushing about Lauryn Hill. And I felt like it was the first time I'd seen a white teenage girl in my era just kind of go off about the iconicity of a Black woman artist. We know this to be true long before that, with the breakthroughs of Aretha [Franklin] and many folks before her, but there is a way that these icons cross boundaries, which is why they occupy that space. 

But one of the things that I was really interested in trying to tell the story about in my book and in my research is how important these artists were in the ways that Black women and girl fans could create these kinds of conversations with the artists. We have so much work now on everyone from, of course, Queen Beyonce to Mary J. Blige, and the ways their narrative testimonies lay claim to a kind of representation of everyday Black women's interiority in the public sphere. 

And that really does date back to the classic blues queens. They were able to make Black women's interior desires something of a cultural phenomenon and something to be regarded with care and with awe. And that meant, of course, so much to Black women and girl fans, especially if we know the cinematic story of representation is very different. So where are you going to be able to see yourself? You're maybe going to hear yourself before you see yourself in this kind of context.”

What happened with Mamie Smith after this big hit? Was she a one hit wonder?

“I think we would now call her a one hit wonder. She did very well for herself, though. She continued to perform in live spaces across the Midwest and the Northeast. She lived a life of financial security relative to other African Americans of that period. So it's not the kind of tragic story that we often attach to a number of blues queens, everyone from Bessie Smith to Billie Holiday, you know?”

Credits

Guest:

  • Daphne Brooks - professor of African American Studies, Theatre Studies, American Studies, and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Yale University