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Callaloo 25.1 (2002) 8-44
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"Shoot Myself a Cop"
Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues" as Social Text
One evening I heard a tale that rendered me sleepless for nights. It was of a Negro woman whose husband had been seized and killed by a mob. It was claimed that the woman vowed she would avenge her husband's death and she took a shotgun, wrapped it in a sheet, and went humbly to the whites, pleading that she be allowed to take her husband's body for burial. It seemed that she was granted permission to come to the side of her dead husband while the whites, silent and armed, looked on. The woman, so went the story, knelt and prayed, then proceeded to unwrap the sheet; and, before the white men realized what was happening, she had taken the gun from the sheet and had slain four of them, shooting at them from her knees.
--Richard Wright, Black Boy (1945)
I can't sleep at night, I can't eat a bite
'Cause the man I love, he don't treat me right
--Perry Bradford, "Crazy Blues" (1920), as sung by Mamie Smith
blues ain't culture
they sounds of
against the white man's
game he's run on us all
these blues / yrs.
blues is struggle
of our people
cuz we cudn't off the
white motha / fucka. . . .
--Sonia Sanchez, "liberation / poem" (1970) [End Page 8]
The story of how black New York songwriter Perry Bradford convinced Fred Hager, a white executive at Okeh Records, to let Mamie Smith record Bradford's composition "Crazy Blues" in 1920, thereby inaugurating a decade-long race-records boom, is an oft-told tale--a staple, in condensed form, of both blues histories and histories of the Harlem Renaissance. 1 (A complete transcription of the recorded lyrics can be found at the end of this article.) Smith, the first black woman to record a secular song for commercial consumption, was also the first black superstar to be created by the medium: according to the shipping director at Okeh, 75,000 copies of "Crazy Blues" were distributed to Harlem record shops alone within four weeks after the November release. 2 Word quickly spread, helped in part by an informal record-distribution network of black Pullman-car porters who bought them by the dozens, according to Bradford, at a dollar per copy and resold them in rural districts for two dollars, half a week's pay for a black laborer. Within seven months, hundreds of thousands of copies of "Crazy Blues" had been sold nationally, perhaps even a million, the great majority of them to a black public delighted at the chance to consume, in endlessly replayable form, a commodified narrative of one black woman's romantic abandonment. Breathless advertising in black periodicals clearly played a role in Smith's success, fanning interest in her public appearances and capitalizing on passions already engendered in her record-buying fans. "Hear this World Famous Phonograph Star Sing 'Crazy Blues' and all her latest hits," cried an ad in the Chicago Defender (26 February 1921) before her sold-out week of performances therein March 1921, "and then hear her popular Okeh records, the Greatest 'Blues' Records of the century" (4). Abetting the power of advertising was Smith's skill as a stage performer, noted by reviewers during the several extended tours she made in support of "Crazy Blues." "Crowds which tax the capacity of the Avenue Theater are greeting Mamie Smith and her company at every performance," wrote Tony Langston in the Defender:
The famous 'Blues' singer is a distinct hit and she is living up to her reputation in the most satisfactory manner. What it takes to put a "Blues" number over Mamie sure has got. She is full of animation and has a voice which seem [sic] to have been built for the purpose. She has a personality and a smile that is infectious and she is aided by a jazz band that...