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In 1920, Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Hounds entered an OKeh studio and recorded Perry Bradford's "Crazy Blues," a performance generally regarded as the first blues record. Bradford had tried repeatedly to promote the song (publishing the piece under different names with different publishers), but Mamie Smith made it a sensation—selling 75,000 copies within a few weeks of its release. The recording helped introduce the blues to a large, national audience, with buyers clamoring for the sound of the music more than any particular compositional quality. The timbre and emotion, elements unable to be tabulated on printed sheet music, of Smith's voice and Dope Andrews's trombone were selling points and the record became a blues sensation. Still, as the name of her band attests, a great deal of confusion surrounded the blues as a musical category with the terms "jazz," the "blues," and even "ragtime" all becoming vaguely synonymous in the music publishing and recording worlds. Although routinely seen as a starting point, in many ways "Crazy Blues" was an endpoint of sorts, and Peter Muir, in Long Lost Blues: Popular Blues in America, 1850-1920, traces the musical story that would eventually lead to this recording. In so doing, he crafts an often-compelling story around the musical culture that preceded the emergence of the race-record industry.
At the center of Muir's book is the genre of "popular blues"—a nebulous category of music that straddles the line between folk and mainstream music. Muir argues that this music, defined by "the interaction of blues with popular music, and the malleable nature of its folk roots," bridged the gap between the black subculture and a national audience (p. 1). Though it had a major impact on American culture, Muir contends that this genre, with the exception of the music of W. C. Handy, has historically received less attention from scholars, many of whom tend to focus on the folk roots of the blues and then skip ahead to its urban counterpart. Muir's book, then, offers [End Page 155] an important corrective to this narrative. In the first several chapters especially, he succeeds in crafting a thoughtful examination of black vaudeville, black musical performance in the early twentieth century, and the development of the early blues industry. Still, despite its clear importance in the studies of blues and early jazz, the book has some problems with execution. Too often, the book reads more as a collection of loosely connected articles than as a tightly argued monograph. Also, it is somewhat uneven with two chapters (one on the power of music to "cure the blues" and the other on the creativity of southern blues composers) disrupting the narrative flow. These chapters are not necessarily ill-conceived, but rather they underscore the problematic organization of the book with several disconnected chapters. Ultimately, these flaws dull an otherwise impressive volume, and a keener editorial eye could have helped to construct a more concisely developed argument.
Despite these organizational flaws, Long Lost Blues is a good resource and an attractive volume filled with sheet-music facsimiles, clear notational examples, and photographs—many from Muir's personal collection. This book will be of particular use to scholars interested in African American musical performance before 1920, and Muir's concise discussions of piano rolls, blue notes, W. C. Handy, and the musical context of the blues are strong introductions for readers less familiar with this period. Although neglected by historians over the years, this important period of musical development is finally generating some fine studies, and Muir's book (in conjunction with Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff 's recent Ragged but Right: Black Traveling Shows, "Coon Songs," and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz (2007) helps document an underresearched period of black music. Overall, Muir has written an important book that provides a necessary examination of black music in the decades before recordings became commonplace and jazz emerged as America's...