Sunday, June 10, 2018

Ain't No Coffee Table Blues: The Original Blues by Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff

Perhaps it's a sign of the times that there seems to be a market for flashy commodities that prove our worth to ourselves and others. Or perhaps it's just that there's an increasing number of old blues fogies out there with disposable income to spend on expensive books. Because these days it  volumes on early blues and jazz seem to have morphed into coffee table books. As if sending out the signal that this music is my drug of choice and I will spend any amount of money to feed my addiction. Unfortunately, too often it's the case that such books are little more than an attractive repackaging of older material, accompanied by photographs.

Though its eye-catching large format cover might suggest the latter, Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff's The Original Blues- The Emergence of the Blues in African American Vaudeville latest is anything but. Perhaps it is simply masquerading as such. Because The Original Blues is, in fact, an  scrupulously researched and invaluable book on a subject that has been relatively neglected over the years: namely, the transition of the music from segregated minstrelsy to vaudeville at the end of the 19th century and finally the emergence in the early part of the twentieth century of what we have come to refer to as the blues.

Seroff and Abbott's study ends in 1926, on the eve of the great crash. An interesting year in itself, less an indication of the state of the economy than the rise and centralisation of black involvement in the white vaudeville circuit. From here it would seem the music would no longer be the exclusive province of a black audience and circuit. Though the latter had produced in particular an assortment of  females blues singers, such as Ora Criswell and her protege Trixie Smith, who would perform and record unencumbered by the "blackface" tradition. Not that the centralisation of the music didn't have an economic basis. The  authors, in focusing on performers as well as accountants, bookers venues and critics, site 1921 as a key year, one in which the Theater Owners Booking Association in concert with the race record industry nationalised the black vaudeville circuit, pushing  blues artists, mainly female, to the fore, and, in doing so, created the possibility of a more racially diverse audience.

The Original Blues is a fascinating account,  the third in a trilogy of books about early black popular music that began with Abbott and Seroff's Out of Sight- The Rise of African-American Popular Music, 1889-1895 and Ragged But Right- Black Traveling Shows, "Coon Songs," and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz. While it's not necessary to have read those books to enjoy The Original Blues, readers of this one will surely be tempted to delve into Seroff and Abbott's earlier work. Kudos should go not only to Seroff and Abbott but to the University of Mississippi Press for its presentation of what amounts to an important book when it comes to  the history of the music. Whether acquiring the book or obtaining it from the library, no serious fan of blues and early jazz will want to miss this one.

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