This article reexamines the origins of blues music from a revisionist perspective, seeking to disarticulate mythic understandings—including the popular notion that the blues were “born” out of African American pain and hardship in the Mississippi Delta—from what the best recent scholarship actually tells us about the music's earliest days. The collective portrait evoked by Abbott and Seroff, Muir, Ottenheimer, and Wald is of a lyric form with a long and fragmentary prehistory in Tin Pan Alley sheet music, plausible musical origins in the Ohio River Valley rather than the Deep South, and a critical but unrecorded early flowering within the precincts of black vaudeville, exemplified by the career of Butler “String Beans” May. Songwriter and bandleader W. C. Handy, the celebrated “father of the blues,” is thoroughly implicated in this narrative of blues’ emergence; his roles as popular historian, mythographer, and author of “St. Louis Blues” are reassessed in a way that clarifies his legacy.


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pp. 42-68
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