Tuesday, June 20, 2006:

The Roots Canal: Before the Blues

Original Dixieland Jass Band -- Livery Stable Blues (1917)
Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Hounds -- Crazy Blues (1920)
Do you ever wonder what came before the blues? What came before jazz? What were the "roots of the roots?" I do, for sure. I've always wondered what African-American music sounded like before it evolved into blues, jazz, boogie-woogie, rhythm-and-blues, rock'n'roll, soul, hip-hop and the other genres that dominated the 20th (and so far the 21st) century.

What a shock, then, to discover that my very own cocktail guru is also an early American music guru! Dave Wondrich, the man who first poured me an Old-Fashioned at Smith & Vine and whose first book, Esquire Drinks, launched me on my serial obsessions with Americanos and Negronis and Sazeracs and Manhattans and Little Italys and Suburbans and Sidecars and Shermans and Pegu Clubs and Red Hooks and Brooklyns and White Negronis, is also a historian of African-American music whose second book was Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot, 1843-1924, which is completely dedicated to that same question.

Stomp and Swerve focuses on three American traditions: minstrelsy, ragtime and early jazz. Minstrelsy was huge in the 19th century, when black banjo music was mongrelized for white audiences by white -- and sometimes black! -- performers in blackface. Unrecorded, their music (along with the authentic black traditions it was loosely based on) is lost to history, although some of those traditions (like the banjo itself) were ironically preserved in what became white country music. Ragtime, which sounds so tame today but was as scandalous in its time as gangsta rap, was the first melding of African-American syncopation with formal Western music. And "jazz," according to Dave, "= ragtime + blues."

Fortunately, Dave released an album with selections of the music he wrote about. (There's nothing more frustrating than reading about music you can't listen to.) These two songs, he says, were the first real jazz record and the first real blues record. I'll let the historians duke it out with him. Livery Stable Blues put on disk for the first time the music that had been percolating in New Orleans, Chicago and other cities and took the country by storm, kicking off the jazz craze. Three years later, Crazy Blues combined the new jazz music with the blues that had started filtering out of the deep South in the 1890s and early 1900s, and kicked off the craze of girl blues singers like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. The rest is history.

I've often thought I should combine my twin obsessions in a music-and-drinking site called Rhythm & Booze, but now I've met my true master in both. This one's for you, Dave. You're the real Mr. Rhythm & Booze.

[Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot]
You love the puns, don't you?

This is some early jazz. I love those sudden pauses in the middle, and I can just imagine this Dixieland track rocking the joint--hell, I can imagine it as a Max Fleischer cartoon, complete with bouncing beer mugs with foam sloshing out, and a piano banged so hard the keys bounce off it in waves.

Mamie Smith does some good work. Honey, Where You Been So Long? has posted some of her tracks, but not this one. It's nice to have another. :-) That must mean I'm past due to look her up.

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