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  • Long Lost Blues: Popular Blues in America, 1850–1920
  • Edward Komara
Long Lost Blues: Popular Blues in America, 1850–1920. By Peter C. Muir. (Music in American Life.) Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010. [x, 254 p. ISBN 9780252034879 (hardcover), $85; ISBN 9780252076763 (paperback), $35.] Music examples, illustrations, bibliography, indexes.

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The first blues record released for African American consumers appeared in 1920, Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues" on Okeh 4169. Blues historians have long known that the earliest blues sheet music was published in 1912, but for reasons of access (many copies have been in private collections) and training (many researchers of the blues have been trained in disciplines other than music) they have not been able to explore much about sheet music beyond what Samuel Charters set forth in 1959 (The Country Blues [New York: Rinehart]). In Long Lost Blues, Peter Muir sets out to plumb the full depth of the blues printed during the 1910s, and to assess the presence of blues antecedents in sheet music from the previous decades.

The book is an expanded publication of Muir's 2004 Ph.D. dissertation "Before 'Crazy Blues': Commercial Blues in America 1850–1920" (City University of New York). The core material in the dissertation retained for the book was his overview of commercial blues during the 1910s, a distinction between the sad "homeopathic" blues and the happy "allopathic" blues, a methodology of textual and musical analysis of blues derived from the characteristics of 1910s sheet music blues, a profile of "proto-blues" composer Hughie Cannon, a look at the 12-measure songs sharing the same tune as "Frankie and Johnny" (or "Frankie and Albert"), and a concluding account of the emergence and early dissemination of blues. Also carried over to the book were Muir's acknowledgements to the Library of Congress staff Wayne Shirley and David Sager, and to the private collectors who supplied many rare piano rolls and sheet music publications, especially Thornton Hagert and Michael Montgomery, neither of whom are well known to blues researchers. The dissertation's appendices presenting the list of blues sheet music for 1912–20, the discography covering 1914–21, and the piano roll ography up to 1921, are not reprinted in the book, but they are given on the author's website (Peter Muir, "Long Lost Blues,", accessed 23 May 2010). Other portions of the dissertation not included in the book are a provocative historiography about the lack of writing about 1910s blues and its sheet music, and a lengthy discussion of the folk culture tune "Sweet Thing" and its appearance in "coon" songs published in the 1890s.

Having removed the dissertation portions that would have been distracting, Muir fixes his perspective on the 1910s, adding new chapters that widen our appreciation of the blues of that decade. Especially important is the new chapter on the music of W. C. Handy, which analyzes and evaluates nine blues from the prime of his composing career (1909–20). From there, Muir proceeds to look at Southern published blues, especially those composed by Euday Bowman, Perry Bradford, and George W. Thomas, showing the ways that these composers drew from the contemporary Southern performance practices. A new overview of the "popular blues industry" of the 1910s and an appendix of titular blues published as sheet music in 1912–15 are also welcome. The remaining new chapter, "Curing the Blues with the Blues," develops the homeopathic/allopathic contrast from the dissertation towards a refined description in 1910s terms of what American people expected or wanted the blues to do for their momentary moods and dispositions.

With these additions and the new ordering of the chapters, the resulting book is an improvement over the dissertation. The earlier effort gave first an overview, then textual and musical characteristics, thirdly the chapters on proto-blues, and finally an account of the emergence of the blues; in short, the first half was overview and elements, the second half was a historical treatment of proto-blues and early blues from 1890 through 1910. The book has the new overview chapter; the textual and musical characteristics; then the new chapters on Handy, Southern published blues...


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