“Music was my refuge.”
This is how Maya Angelou opens her third memoir, “Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas,” from 1976. When she was piecing together a life in 1940s San Francisco as a single teen mother, it was the need for vinyl — the blues of John Lee Hooker, the “bubbling silver sounds of Charlie Parker” — that drew her to the Melrose Record Shop on Fillmore. Her passion for records drove her to snatch two hours between jobs so she could rove its aisles. It was “where I could wallow,” Angelou writes, “rutting in music.”
Angelou would go on to join the store’s staff, basking in a world of wall-to-wall sounds — Schoenberg, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie — ordering stock and playing records on request. Maya the music wonk. Maya the D.J. Maya the record collector. This is a side of Black women’s cultural lives rarely considered and yet deeply woven into our modern pop universe.
This week marks the 100th anniversary of Mamie Smith recording “Crazy Blues,” African-American women’s breakthrough into the mainstream recording industry — a feat that is stunning and impactful, yet so often misunderstood or forgotten that most people would be hard pressed to name the artist whose smash altered the course of pop. And though they’re rarely acknowledged in histories of music, the Black women and girls who responded to Smith’s sound in mass helped upend the anti-Blackness of America’s nascent record business in the early 20th century.
In the summer of 1920, Smith, the Cincinnati-born New York vaudevillian, walked into a studio with Perry Bradford, a shrewd songwriter-musician and blues business hustler. They were on a mission to counteract the industry’s previous decade, when white blues artists like Marion Harris and the Ukrainian immigrant Sophie Tucker were breaking out with their own recorded renditions of Black music while African-American entertainers — legends like Ma Rainey, Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith — were confined to burning up the stages all along the “Chitlin Circuit,” the Theatre Owners Booking Association’s array of venues designated for Black performers.
For Smith and Bradford, one of the biggest questions was whether they could prove to record executives that, without a shadow of a doubt, Black music fans mattered.
Such a claim had, so far, fallen on deaf ears. At the time, it was acceptable for a Black musician to record renditions of and opera and theater fare, and even phonographic curiosities like the 1890 blackface-adjacent “Laughing Song” by George W. Johnson, one of his two recordings believed to be some of the earliest by an African-American. But that Southern vernacular lowdown sound? Those straight-out-the-juke-joint blue notes and bends? Early white labels saw no reason to record them unless they could be repackaged with white artists for the phonograph-owning bourgeoise of the Progressive Era.
Bradford and Smith’s strategy was simple yet novel: allow an African-American woman blues vocalist to appeal to Black listeners, proving they had a taste for popular sounds while spotlighting the artistry and the seriousness of the singer and her accompanying band. In short, they would showcase Black pop music excellence as achievable and commodifiable and win over manufacturers who, as the Chicago Defender noted on July 31, 1920, “may not believe that the Race will buy records sung by its own singers.”
Recorded on August 10, 1920, for Okeh Records and released in November, Smith’s gripping and rambunctious “Crazy Blues” hit all of those benchmarks and more. In its nearly three and a half minutes, Smith sings in a robust vibrato atop horns and woodwinds, lamenting a love affair that brings her a boatload of pain. This is heartbreak that demands a multitude of emotions, so it’s no surprise that she would lean into her pronounced theater-world chops. On one end of “Crazy Blues,” our heroine is all tied up in knots about the man she loves doing her wrong; by its close, her despair has morphed into a militant rage.
“Gonna do like a Chinaman, go and get some hop,” she sings, invoking an inflammatory term that was unfortunately not uncommon — even among Black folks — at the time, “Get myself a gun and shoot myself a cop.” Somehow we’ve gone from “Crazy in Love” to “____ tha Police” over the course of one song.
Bradford had assembled an all-Black band, the Jazz Hounds, who played live, improvised music that was its own unpredictable, breakneck adventure — a refreshing contrast to the buttoned-up versions of the blues interpreted by white artists across the 1910s. And Smith was game about playing along with them. “It’s remarkable,” said the critic David Wondrich, whose gutsy book “Stomp and Swerve” documents a history of America’s “hot” music. “She’s a part of the band. She’s bending notes with them. She’s not flinching whenever the trombone drops a bomb.”
The reaction to the song, particularly among Black audiences, was groundbreaking. The explosiveness of its parting lyrics, its references to drugs and vigilantism caught the public’s attention and broke boundaries: Something taboo was being uttered on a record for the first time in a popular song by a Black woman entertainer. Bradford’s gamble on “a Black woman nobody’s ever heard of,” as the popular music historian Elijah Wald put it in a phone interview, was “a huge conceptual leap.”
It’s also possible that Black listeners were dazzled by a phenomenally well-executed record that captured an even bigger, existential ache than its lyrics describe. It was an expression of the grandeur and complexity of Black life, finally available for their phonograph. Sales figures for “Crazy Blues” show an estimated 75,000 copies purchased upon its release, and in 1921 Billboard credited the song as pulling in “a million dollars’ worth,” a giant sum at the time that stood for “lots and lots” in this era, Wald said.
Black recording artists subsequently made significant inroads riding the coattails of Smith’s success. Blues women dominated the first half of the decade, with Waters, Rainey and Bessie Smith at the forefront of the craze. Waters’s popularity would almost single-handedly keep the African-American-owned Black Swan Records afloat in the early 1920s. Rainey, called “the Mother of the Blues,” signed with Paramount Records in 1923 and would go on to crank out more than 100 songs covering topics like lesbian pride and the perils of patriarchy. And that other Smith, the “Empress” Bessie, would hold court at Columbia Records as the most formidable and original voice of the blues.
These were the pioneers who upended the soundtrack of American life. Record labels now believed in the (monetary) value of Black mass cultural art, and they provided Black artists with access — though still heavily mediated by white executives — to recording their own music. Pop music was transformed by a people whose musical innovations were — and remain today — the manifestation of a brutal, centuries long, blood-soaked struggle to be regarded as human in the West.
Smith had an impressive run as a mega-wattage celebrity who capitalized on the success of “Crazy Blues” into the mid-1920s with lavish wardrobes and sold-out shows. This is “one of the first cases in history,” Wald said, “where a record makes a difference in somebody’s career.” She was drawing white as well as Black audiences in droves. But blues veterans (like that other Smith) were nipping at her heels and would soon eclipse her in fame.
This is where the story of “Crazy Blues” often reaches its climax in the history books — with Smith’s risk-taking innovation. But the popularity itself is often left unexamined. The other side of the “Crazy Blues” story is how African-American women and girls found their way to that record and the ones that followed and loved them fiercely.
Many of these listeners were absorbing the straightforward opinions, demands and perspectives stored up in the music. Angela Y. Davis pointed this out in “Blues Legacies and Black Feminism,” her landmark study on blues women, cataloging the variety of topics covered in their songs: explosive eroticism, queer desire, the horrors of domestic violence, segregation, poverty and racial terrorism. The music articulated much about post-captivity Black life in all its vicissitudes and pleasures.
If we were to widen the lens to look at the lasting legacy of “Crazy Blues,” we might find out more about those Black masses — especially the Black women and girls — who turned their record buying into a full-blown revolution. These were the people who possessed tastes and ideas about culture, who constructed elaborate leisure rituals around their records and who used these records to articulate their wants and needs, their hopes and dreams.
Only a handful of scholars have bothered to extensively explore the history of African-American record fans, buyers and collectors, and yet we know that Black listeners got a hold of this music through a variety of ways. As the historian Joshua Clark Davis points out, there were few Black-owned brick-and-mortar shops in those early blues years. His own research found a shop owned and operated by the Louis Armstrong associate Erskine Tate selling “Crazy Blues” in November 1920. The scholar Stephen Robertson’s work identifies James H. Tetley’s Harlem Music Shop as “the largest colored music store in the city” in 1921. And Lynn Abbott and Douglas Seroff’s indispensable study “The Original Blues” alludes to other Black shops that played pivotal roles in marketing early blues records in places like Dallas, Kansas City and Los Angeles.
Black people were also selling and buying records through other means as the Smith phenomenon rolled on, getting around a largely white-controlled retail culture. “It could be a news stand. It could be a furniture shop. It could be a variety store,” Davis said in an interview.
The culture of the Black record shops evolved through the post-World War II era, and Davis said that it played a big part in fostering community. The stores were “Black public spaces” with a don’t-cost-a-thing barrier for entry, where kids “could come in and hang out.” They were safe, convivial places Black folks could call their own, and they were organized around exploring, thinking about, discussing and purchasing — laying claim to — music.
This is the compelling forgotten history sparked by “Crazy Blues” that’s worth lingering on: the sites and cultural rituals created by Black record lovers, particularly women. And while most books won’t tell you their stories, the memories shared by everyday African-American women who are living archives of cultural knowledge do.
Take, for instance, my 94-year-old mother, Juanita, whose teen years in Jim Crow Texarkana, Tex., included regular excursions with her girlfriends to the local Beasley’s record store in the early 1940s. They requested music they’d heard on the radio, which held their imagination again and again in the shop’s listening booths.
The local Detroit legend and public historian Marsha Music said her father, Joe Von Battle, opened his own store in 1945. According to Music, Joe’s Record Shop stood out because of his decision to “feature old blues,” the sound of Black migrants’ “last years in the transition period” from “the South to the North.” Her father would blast music from a big speaker out front, so patrons and passers-by could soak up the sonic energy of whatever was spinning inside.
Having grown up in her family’s store in the early 1960s, Music developed a rich repository of wisdom about record culture and the ways shops like her father’s, similar to bookstores, held the potential to cultivate curiosity and nurture intellectual perspectives. By the time she was 8 or 9 years old, she was fully “immersed” in this world, reading Bobby “Blue” Bland and Ahmad Jamal album covers. “In those days, album covers were the window on the world,” she said.
This is certainly how I experienced my own record shop culture while growing up in the Bay Area in the 1970s and ’80s when Tower Records ruled the day. The pilgrimages my friends and I made to the Mountain View and the Columbus Avenue stores were steeped in hard-core fandom and a pursuit of knowledge about Prince, Bowie and the Police (I had a thing for the band’s drummer) and, later in my Gen-X 20s, riot grrrl and neo-soul. These were ludic dwelling places where my crew and I identified our shared affinities, our likes and dislikes.
The 2020 Hulu reboot of “High Fidelity” starring Zoë Kravitz, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and David H. Holmes gets as close to this kind of feeling that I’ve ever seen. It plays with the original’s white masculinist ideas about pop music culture — the semi-self-conscious “rock snobbery” sentiments of Nick Hornby’s novel and its slightly more expansive film from 2000 starring John Cusack and Jack Black as fanatical record shop clerks.
Fandom matters in “High Fidelity” 2.0, just as it did in the original. But the fans are now Black women, each distinct from one another, yet sharing a deep investment in music as both a salve and a compass for their complicated self-making journeys.
These “women are allowed to study with each other, to study culture and to have opinions and ideas and convictions about their beliefs about cultures,” said Randolph, the classically trained vocalist who boldly reinvented Jack Black’s character, in a phone interview. Their “conversations about artistry — when that artist did this at that one part, and that bridge is killer — she’s learning,” she added. “This is her education. This is her grad school.”
Sadly, but not surprisingly, Hulu canceled “High Fidelity” last week. Randolph’s electrifying character remains a testimony to the eclecticism and passion of Black women music fans. They are the listeners who’ve consistently shown love for Black women artists — the musicians who have provided crucial DNA for pop music but who’ve rarely had control over how their records are produced and promoted because of unrelenting racism and sexism. For this reason, fandom feels especially critical and meaningful.
Online fan communities may be infamous when it comes to the lengths they’ll go to rep hard for their goddesses — the fiercely protective BeyHive (for Beyoncé), Navy (for Rihanna) and Barbz (for Nicki Minaj). The Black women and girls who are front and center in these fan armies may seem to little resemble Maya or Marsha or my mother, each grooving to their favorite jams in their own beloved shops. But there are connections between these two generations, who, as the artist Carrie Mae Weems once put it, have “endless discussions” with the music. This is the tradition of looking after art they’ve deemed precious in the face of an industry that has profited off Black music without deeply caring for the people who made it.
Social media and streaming have given fans in 2020 a lot of power. But they can’t ultimately repair a broken system. The early record industry’s root-and-branch white supremacy and sexism have resulted in lasting structural inequalities in the label boardroom (where Sylvia Rhone of Epic Records is one of the few Black women executives), in the studio (where men outnumber women as engineers and producers) and in arts criticism (where white voices speak more often about Black music than African-American women do).
These problems are indicative of a larger crisis that neither an ardent fan base nor a Blackout Tuesday protest can swiftly repair.
But in the meantime, Black women and girls will make their voices heard in the blogosphere, and on Twitter and Instagram. They’ll be there to hold the Grammys accountable when “Lemonade” is snubbed or when Nicki keeps it real with Taylor or Miley, reminding both superstars how racism and privilege operate in their own careers.
These fan warriors are part of a legacy that stretches back 100 years. Mamie Smith’s achievement not only made way for the Billies, Arethas, Whitneys and Beyoncés who followed her path to pop dominance. She also changed presumptions about what popular music was, what it could do — what kind of language it could speak to us about the depth and intricacies of our inner lives. Her record hailed us, and we responded by carrying it into the center our lives and the intimacy of our homes, building entire life worlds around it, sound fortresses to resist the catastrophe of our chronic invisibility.
Daphne A. Brooks is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of African-American Studies at Yale University. She is the author of “Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound,” forthcoming in 2021 from Harvard University Press.