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PHOTO ESSAY

The Blues

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Blues queen Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith (1936). Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, courtesy of the Van Vechten Trust.

"The last crucial element in the development of the blues," according to The Oxford Encyclopedia of Popular Music, "was the advent of the phonograph." Indeed, music historians have generally credited W. C. Handy's 1912 recording of "Memphis Blues" and Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues" (1920) with solidifying the genre as commercially viable, an advance that would help launch the music from provincial craft to national entertainment staple. Accounts of Handy and Smith's first exposure to the blues are somewhat apocryphal, adding even more intrigue to a genre already saturated in mythology. Sources claim that Handy, on tour in Mississippi in 1903, crossed paths with a tattered black man playing guitar with a knife and moaning in repeated verse. "It was the weirdest music I had ever heard," Handy is reported to have said. Regardless of its beginnings, the newly-recorded sound was a success, and Smith's record sold "more than a million copies in six months" (Hodges), immediately clearing the way for the "race record" genre that would launch the careers of Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Ethel Waters, and other so-called blues queens.

Hodges, Graham Russell Gao. "Blues." In Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century, edited by Paul Finkelman. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

"The Blues." In Encyclopedia of Popular Music, 4th ed., edited by Colin Larkin. Oxford Music Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/epm/62401 (accessed 15 June 2011).

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