A BRIEF HISTORY OF MAMIE SMITH How the First Black Blues Singer In History Died Penniless
Black History Month may be over, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t significant pieces of black history that need to be shared.
I have always seen activism as a lifestyle - something that you partake in year round, without sequestering your voice to one month or day of the year. Whether or not I’ve been making a difference in the wider society, I have always felt that it is my duty to speak up on things and spread awareness when I see injustices. However, I’ve never been particularly well-spoken on
political issues, as there’s always been someone else who can better phrase my thoughts or feelings on particular current events, and crippling social anxiety keeps me away from attending protests.
Instead, I’ve found that my strength lies in the fact that I can ramble on and on about pop music history, so that’s exactly what we’re going to do today! It may not be activism in the traditional sense, but pop music and media is something that practically everyone interacts with on a daily basis = what we consume forms how we think and all that existential nonsense.
So what happens when what we consume is used to rewrite history, and the facts are buried under layers of systemic racism and exploitation?
During my research on Sister Rosetta Tharpe, I came across a lady by the name of Mamie Smith. I’d never heard the name before, but a quick look at her sparse Wikipedia page told me that she was the first African American to record a blues single and become an international hit.
Why is this groundbreaking, you ask? Well, let me reiterate something here - Mamie wasn’t just the first black female to record a blues song, she was the first black person to record a blues song ever. Period. That means she was the predecessor to Little Richard and Fats Domino, Sinatra and Elvis, Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones - basically anyone whose music was or was lifted from early 1900s blues records.
Yet her name has been all but wiped from the history books, with even less recognition than our Lord and Saviour Sister Tharpe.
The late 1800s to early 1900s was a rich time for newly freed men to experience a cultural resurgence and want to revisit their African roots, leading to an exponential amount of new genres being invented. Back then, though, the spread of black culture and folk songs relied mainly on the heavily racist existence of minstrel shows that had begun in the 1830s. This set up something of an ‘even when you win, you lose’ sort of system for these free men, at the time, as in the very moment they were allowed to return to their own culture, it was snatched up by the hands of The White Man™.
African-Americans, at the time, could only become recognized if they, too, agreed to partake in these racist caricatures of their own culture. Born in 1883, only about 18 years after slavery was abolished in the United States, Mamie would have grown up in this era - in the very height of commodifying black culture, and the domination of white singers like Sophie Tucker, whose success was solely built off the back of a profound interest in black culture, entirely removed from the desire to see black people actually involved.
(“But Shannon!” You gasp, scandalized, ”Black performers were allowed in vaudeville shows at the time, stop trying to rewrite history to make it more racist than it is!”
You see, dear reader, I’d love to do that, but seeing as black performers in vaudeville shows were constantly relegated to the back of the hall, I can’t.
Oh, and if black people wanted priority seating just to see someone of their own race represented, well, they’d simply have to put on their own show! And that’s completely excluding all the black performers who were famous in white circuits because they did blackface just like the whites did at those beloved minstrel shows we mentioned before. Whoopee, human rights!!!
So yes, I’d just like to take the time to remind everyone that history is indeed as racist as it is, if not more so.)
Mamie, however, would get her chance to usurp the dastardly Sophie Tucker on one faithful day in August, with a little help from a well-known fella by the name of Perry Bradford.
Having been involved in show business since the tender age of 10, Smith first worked as a vaudeville dancer. Perry Bradford, an African-American composer and songwriter at the time, saw the potential to have black people return to their culture through the few coloured vaudeville performers that existed. In Bradford’s experience with working on minstrel shows, he noticed that most of the successful singers would not incorporate traditional African-American techniques into their performances (most likely for the reasons mentioned above.) Bradford, though, sought to break these black performers out of the confines of colonialism by pushing blues music in its purest form, by black people and for a black audience.
Bradford recruited Smith to assist him with this endeavour, composing two songs for her and approaching every record exec he could think of to consider letting him and his apprentice record the two tracks. Eventually Fred Hager of Okeh studios took the bait and thus, Mamie Smith was on her way to becoming a superstar.
Smith’s first song was That Thing Called Love, a simple track with nothing but piano accompaniment beneath Mamie’s moaning, soulful vocals. The song released in July 1920 to better sales than expected, with 10,000 copies sold. However, the track was merely a foreshadowing of what Smith and Bradford would go on to accomplish, as it seemed to do just what they’d wanted it to. That Thing Called Love was immensely popular within the African-American community, with Bradford reportedly said that copies were flying off the shelf “just as fast as the Button-Hole Factory at Scranton, Pennsylvania, could press and ship them all over the South.”
A few weeks after the success of That Thing Called Love, Bradford approached Hagar with a new song called Crazy Blues, initially going by the title Harlem Blues. It was recorded on August 10th, 1920.
The track turned out to be an overnight hit, both for the white audiences that heard it and, much more importantly, for the black demographic that struggled to have their own music heard for years. It sold around 75,000 copies upon release, reportedly raking in millions in profit (although we don’t know how much money the song actually made.) This event was historic in the sense that it made record companies open their eyes to the potential of a black music market. With this one song, Smith paved the way for famous blues women like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith to create lucrative careers celebrating their own culture. Suddenly, it wasn’t about white people appropriating only what they could poke fun at, it was about men and women of colour being able to put themselves out there in a way they hadn’t been allowed to before, bursting through the glass ceiling crafted by white supremacy.
But what about the whole dying broke bit? See, the sad thing is, we don’t actually know that much about Mamie Smith’s life after her commercial success. The assumption is that she’d spent so much money on her lavish lifestyle that may have sent her into bankruptcy, what with the extravagant clothes and dresses she wore. This, however, paints a kind of overindulgent image of this woman that, at least partially, I don’t buy into.
Instead, I question what it would have felt like to be a black woman, born into a time where you had to fight tooth and nail for every inch of success you got while watching white women take your culture and your music from you. It’s likely Mamie did not have a manager, or anyone to look out for her and her finances after all of that success was thrust upon her, and much like many starlets (regardless of race), mismanaged her funds. On the question of her lost legacy, it could be chalked up to the fact that she hasn’t gotten much love concerning reissues of her discography over the years. Whatever the reason is, though, the fact remains that Mamie was a trailblazer in her own right and deserves to be remembered as such.
While Mamie Smith was laid to rest in an unmarked grave after she died in 1946, her existence remains a shining example of having faith in what you make.Further readings about Mamie Smith and the presence of black people in minstrel/vaudeville shows have been linked in the article for your reading pleasure. Hope you learned something new this week!