Publisher: University Press of Mississippi Jackson
420 pages and 187 b&w illustrations
In this volume, Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff complete their groundbreaking trilogy on the development of African American popular music, authoritatively connecting the black vaudeville movement with the explosion of blues that followed. At the end of the nineteenth century, vaudeville began to replace minstrelsy as America’s favorite form of stage entertainment. Segregation necessitated the creation of discrete African American vaudeville theaters. When these venues first gained popularity, ragtime coon songs were the standard fare. Black vaudeville theaters provided a safe haven where coon songs could be rehabilitated. Dynamic interaction between the performers and their audience unleashed creative energies that accelerated the development of the blues.
The first blues star of black vaudeville was Butler “String Beans” May, a blackface comedian, pianist, singer, and dancer from Montgomery, Alabama. Before his senseless death in 1917, he was recognized as the “blues master piano player of the world.” His legacy, elusive and previously unacknowledged, is preserved in the repertoire of country blues singer-guitarists and pianists of the Race recording era.
While male blues singers remained tethered to the role of blackface comedian, female “coon shouters” acquired a more digni ed aura in the emergent persona of the “blues queen.” Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and most of their contemporaries came through this portal; while others, including forgotten blues heroine Ora Criswell and her prote?ge? Trixie Smith, recon gured the use of blackface for their own subversive purposes.
In 1921 black vaudeville was effectively nationalized by the Theater Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A.). In collusion with the emergent Race recording industry, T.O.B.A. theaters featured touring companies headed by blues queens with records to sell. While the 1920s was the most celebrated and remunerative period of vaudeville blues, the previous decade was arguably the most creative, having witnessed the emergence, popularization, and early development of the original blues in southern theaters.
LYNN ABBOTT, New Orleans, Louisiana, works at the Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University. DOUG SEROFF, Greenbrier, Tennessee, is an independent scholar. Together they are the coauthors of Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889-1895; Ragged but Right: Black Traveling Shows, “Coon Songs,” and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz; and To Do This, You Must Know How: Music Pedagogy in the Black Gospel Quartet Tradition, all published by University Press of Mississippi.