1920. Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Hounds, "Crazy Blues"
Everything to this moment has been prologue: minstrelsy, marches, ragtime, dance crazes from South America or the Pacific, all has merely made straight the paths. Today the prophecy is fulfilled in your hearing. The record that shook the foundations of the earth, the record that won the first battle in a war most people didn’t yet know was happening, the record in the shadow of which all that has happened since still dwells. “Ain’t had nothing but bad news,” but the joy and energy and racket that propels her is a grand fuck-you to all false merchants of that news.

I don't know that I can explain how true the above paragraph feels in the bowels of my soul, without first explaining everything that the foregoing nineteen years' worth of records were meant to communicate.

The plain facts are these: jazz music — that is, Black vernacular music of the American South (made by people who were slaves and the children of slaves, as well as those who were not slaves but nevertheless lived under threat of racial violence) characterized by the microtonal slides of the blues and the rhythmic complexity of ragtime, but also including an improvisatory insouciance that is not merely the elaboration-on-a-theme familiar to the classical world (though containing it) but a sort of polyphony-as-ethos which means a whole new way of understanding the fundamental structure of music, related to but conceptually distinct from ascendant Western European traditions — was already beginning to reshape the texture and formal characteristics of American popular music, as attested on record by white imitators of Black originators, but Black jazz music in all its complexity and originality had not been commercially produced on record before 1920; and with the issue of this record (Okeh 4169), it was.

The degree to which this is not understood even today is a problem with the ways in which both the blues and jazz have been reconceptualized in the years since 1920, sometimes through ignorance, sometimes through malice. To begin with: the blues, as practiced and as understood by the American public, Black and white, in 1920, was womens' music. Men certainly sang and played the blues, particularly in the Mississippi Delta region, but it was women, and specifically Black women like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Alberta Hunter, who popularized the blues in stage shows, traveling minstrel shows, medicine shows, vaudeville acts, and tent performances outside of city limits, drawing bigger Black (and "slumming" white) crowds than legitimate theater drew audiences of any kind. And jazz, in the age before it was "America's classical music," was the blues for dance floors: most jazz records until the 1940s were designated as fox-trots on the label because they were uptempo songs to which cutting a rug was a much more appropriate response than nodding respectfully.

All of this was common (if racially specific) knowledge by 1917, when an Italian-American New Orleans band recorded the first record to popularize "jazz," and tried to put over the story (in court, no less) that jazz was white man's music. White women, vaudevillians and cabaret performers, had begun to cut records which they called "blues," but which rarely resembled the music made by Black women; often it was merely an uptempo version of the long-popular "coon" (minstrel) song tradition, a grotesque caricature of Black humanity rather than a devoted imitation. The conventional wisdom of the recording industry was that Black-originated music was a popular fad, but that the listening and record-buying public, with a shrewd racial protectionism, wouldn't stand for any but white performers.

Ralph Peer, a talent scout and recording engineer for the small German-owned label Okeh, had listened to Black music publishers like W. C. Handy and Perry Bradford, who campaigned for Black performers to perform Black music on record, and he considered that maybe the conventional wisdom was wrong. In any case, it couldn't hurt to try. He booked a New York-born cabaret singer, Mamie Smith, and had her sing a song written by Bradford, a Black songwriter and vaudevillian who was best known for the transracial melancholia of "Some of These Days" as performed by Sophie Tucker, the Jewish imitator of Black "coon shouters." Smith had already cut a couple of non-blues songs by Bradford earlier in the year, and they had sold moderately well, and riots had not broken out, so during the August session she sang "Crazy Blues."

"Crazy Blues" isn't a strict twelve-bar blues. Like many of the sheet-music blues songs written by Black northerners like Handy and Bradford, it's structurally a Tin Pan Alley song, with an introductory verse and then alternate A and B sections; the latter, bookended by the line "Now I got the crazy blues," can be considered the "refrain," although the lyrics in between the bookend change each time Smith sings it. But it's not the structure, but the performance, that makes it a blues song: Smith howls through the surface noise, roughening her normally sweet voice into slides and staggering the rhythm of her delivery so that it sways drunkenly against the backing band rather than marching straight ahead in time as a white performer would have done. And that backing band, led by pianist Willie "The Lion" Smith, with Johnny Dunn's squawking cornet punctuating Mamie's yells, is a who's-who of early New York jazz, long before the New Orleans-via-Chicago migration route brought Crescent City luminaries like Louis Armstrong to the Big Apple. The band reels woozily, on time and in key but only just, musically evoking the heightened, frightened, furious headspace of the lyrics which Mamie declaims.

And it's those lyrics, more than the structure, which make "Crazy Blues" a blues song even in its sheet-publication form: full of sex and death, with imagery borrowed from the deep river of folksong (the change in the ocean, the helpless doctor, laying one's head on a railroad track) and from gross racial stereotypes that resound electrically even today: the final refrain, in which Mamie bellows "I'm gonna do like a Chinaman, go and get some hop/Grab myself a gun and shoot myself a cop" is as startlingly offensive, darkly funny, and despairingly cynical about the limited choices available to terrorized Black bodies in a narcotics-corrupted police state as any N.W.A. song.

But even beyond the specific greatness of this particular song and this particular performance of it (both of which are all-time, world-changing great), the fact that before August, 1920 jazz music had not been heard (except fitfully and shadowily) on record, and that after August, 1920 it was the strongest, surest, and most-imitated music on the planet, is reason enough for "Crazy Blues" to be the landmark record of the century. By comparison, the introductions of country, rock & roll, soul, funk, and even hip-hop to the aural record are small potatoes, variations on a theme: American vernacular music, which is to say Black American music, begins here. Never again, after 1920, would it be possible to exclude a whole class of people — (non-operatic) Black women — from records. And it is Black women, their expressions of pain and joy, of suffering and liberation, of resistance and devotion, of resilience and brokenness, who have made twentieth-century American popular music worth anything at all, indeed who have forced Americans, to the extent that they are, to be human at all. Not only jazz history, but human history can to a very significant sense, be divided between pre- and post-"Crazy Blues."

Fight me.