The IASPM-US Commercial Music Graphic series is offered in tribute to the late Archie Green. Folklorist, labor historian, activist, and pioneering popular music scholar, Green wrote his “Commercial Music Graphic” column for the John Edwards Memorial Foundation Newsletter, a groundbreaking vehicle for scholarship on US vernacular music of the early twentieth century.
The revolutionary impact of Mamie Smith’s 1920 recordings for OKeh Records is well known. Smith’s “Crazy Blues,” released in the fall of that year, was not the first commercial recording to feature black musicians, but it was the disc that smashed segregation in the phonograph industry. At the time, the industry systematically barred black artists from recording. OKeh, needing a hit, took a chance, and “Crazy Blues” broke all sales expectations. Dealers across the country reported that the records never even made it into their stores. Upon delivery, clerks would crack open the shipping boxes on the sidewalk and sell them immediately to the gathered crowds. Soon every major record label added African American artists to their rosters and the “race record” business was born.
This incredible advertisement is, as far as I know, one of the first ones published for “Crazy Blues.” It is from the November 1920 issue of Talking Machine World, the primary journal for phonograph and record dealers. The ad offers clues about what the General Phonograph Corporation, which owned OKeh, thought it was up to when it released “Crazy Blues,” the first blues record by a black singer and backing band. At this point the company had no clue that the record would change the industry.
The company promoted Smith’s records as a continuation of the minstrel tradition. A stereotypical male minstrel in burnt cork and formal attire waves to the reader from the center of the frame. He announces his love for Smith’s blues in the distorted “negro dialect” of the minstrel stage. This was nothing new. By 1920, phonograph companies had released legions of minstrel records. It was a perennially popular genre that propelled the early growth of the industry. Blackface, always more about white supremacist fantasies than any black reality, was the primary way in which the industry portrayed black music and culture. Indeed, companies made no distinction between minstrelsy and music by African Americans. They were the same thing. The advertisement thus can be read as a continuation of this long-standing marketing strategy of selling imaginary black music to white consumers in the era of Jim Crow segregation.
At the same time, there are more subtle elements of the ad that show how OKeh was trying to market what they knew was an unprecedented recording. First is the displacement of Smith herself. She is nowhere to be seen, and no mention is made of her race. Unless already in the know, a reader would have no clue that the advertised records marked a transgression of the color line in the phonograph industry. The minstrel’s endorsement, however, subtly distinguishes Smith from the gaggle of blues that had already been recorded by white artists. “I’s heard Blues, but I’s telling you Mamie’s beats ‘em all,” he says. This is something new, the line suggests without explicitly noting what it is.
Finally, and most remarkably, the minstrel in the ad is not meant to represent a stage performer either black or white. He is labeled “Mr. Public Opinion” and is designed to represent the African American consumer of Smith’s records. OKeh was well aware that “Crazy Blues” would appeal to black consumers. It was the primary reason the company decided to release the record and challenge industry segregation. An ad published in TMW the previous month featured a drawing of white dancers. Yet when the company attempted to portray the new African-American consumer base, it could only imagine it through the derogatory blackface fantasies the phonograph industry had been pumping out for decades.
In the months and years to come black artists and consumers would challenge such depictions with their artistry, their creativity, and their dollars. Yet many of the presumptions about black music born out of blackface would maintain a tenacious hold within the phonograph business. Minstrel imagery would remain one of the most common ways that companies advertised blues records. Dialect and malapropisms would continue to dominate ad copy. “Crazy Blues” was indeed revolutionary, but as this advertisement reminds us, the music industry’s shift from selling minstrelsy to marketing the blues as the major sound of African American music was neither abrupt nor complete.
Karl Hagstrom Miller, the Secretary of IASPM-US, teaches at the University of Texas in Austin. He is the author of Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow.