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The forgotten story of America’s first black superstars

This preservationist instinct may have been valid but the assumptions that underpinned it were often paternalistic and segregationist: derived from the singing of slaves, the oral blues was the product of naive, untutored imaginations that would wither on contact with modernity, so they had to be protected, like rare orchids. While black people who migrated from the Jim Crow South were looking for a better future, the folklorists sentimentally fetishised the agony and mystery of the past they had left behind. This problematic assumption has since resurfaced in writing about soul music and hip hop: the sound of suffering is considered more powerful and real than the sound of defiant enjoyment; pain is more authentic than pleasure.

This obsession with the “genuine” black experience proved fatal for the classic blues. In 1926, Blind Lemon Jefferson became the first solo singer-guitarist to have a hit record (Paramount’s advertisement promised “a real, old-fashioned blues, by a real, old-fashioned blues singer”) and he set a new fashion for earthier “country blues,” followed by Blind Blake, Big Bill Broonzy, Lonnie Johnson and Furry Lewis. With no need for backing bands or stage costumes, the men were much cheaper, too. As Jackie Kay puts it in her biography, “These old bluesmen are considered the genuine article while the women are fancy dress.” At the same time, the classic blues singers were too working-class and sexually frank for some of the urban middle classes. Black Swan, the first black-owned record label, rejected Bessie Smith for being too vulgar, while a leading black newspaper, the Chicago Defender, complained that these “filth furnishers” and “purveyors of putrid puns” were “a hindrance to our standard of respectability and success”.

The classic blues singers were already in decline when the Great Depression finished them off. By 1933, record sales were just 7% of what they had been in 1929 and many of the theatres had closed or been turned into movie theatres. Urban listeners, meanwhile, were abandoning blues for the faster, more sophisticated sound of swing, represented in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by Chadwick Boseman’s young, impatient Levee. They didn’t need that bridge to the South anymore. According to Thomas Dorsey, the gospel blues pioneer who used to play in Rainey’s band, “It collapsed… I don’t know what happened to the blues, they seemed to drop it all at once, it just went down.”

Erasing women’s voices

As a new generation of black female singers broke through in the 1930s – Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Memphis Minnie – some of the first wave sought refuge in other branches of showbusiness. Victoria Spivey appeared in King Vidor’s 1929 movie Hallelujah, one of the first studio pictures to feature an entirely black cast. Ethel Waters became, at one point, the highest-paid actress on Broadway. Only a handful were still making blues records in the 1930s. Mamie Smith retired in 1931. Rainey was dropped by Paramount in 1928 and returned to the Southern tent circuit, her stolen gold necklace replaced by imitation pearls. Bessie Smith recorded one last session in 1933, for one-sixth of the fee she used to command, before she died after a car crash in 1937.

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