Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Coretta M. Pittman's "Literacy in a Long Blues Note"

Coretta M. Pittman is associate professor in the Department of English at Baylor University. She teaches undergraduate courses on race and rhetoric and writing and social justice and graduate courses in African American literature and critical literacy studies. Her research focuses on literacy and rhetoric at the intersections of race, class, gender, and popular culture.

Pittman applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new book, Literacy in a Long Blues Note: Black Women's Literature and Music in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham writes about the cultural and class differences among nineteenth and twentieth century public voices for the race writing “the nineteenth century had witnessed the ascendancy of the middle class as the literate public voice of the race. The twentieth century witnessed the ascendancy of the black working class as the oral narrator of modernity” (“Rethinking Vernacular Culture” 165). Although Higginbotham is writing specifically about black religious content within a subset of the black religious working-classes who were then using race records to promulgate their public message for salvation, the race record market for classic blues was, in fact, “the oral narrator of modernity” (“Rethinking Vernacular Culture” 165) for a different kind of subset within the black working-classes who listened to classic blues by women who expressed themselves in a vernacular which they were intimately familiar. Sales of Smith’s “Crazy Blues” verified the public’s desire for music with secular themes. According to Adam Gussow, it has been estimated that “within seven months, hundreds of thousands of copies of ‘Crazy Blues’ had been sold nationally, perhaps even a million, the great majority of them to a black public delighted at the chance to consume, in endlessly replayable form, a commodified narrative of one black woman’s romantic abandonment” (9). After Smith recorded “Crazy Blues,” many more black women would were recorded singing blues.

Chris Albertson, blues writer and critic argues “Crazy Blues” would be an insignificant blues song but for it being the first blues record recorded. His summarily dismissive comment reads in part, “if ‘Crazy Blues’ cut on August 10, 1920, had not been the first vocal blues record issued, it would probably be long forgotten, for it is an undistinguishable blues composition rendered by a singer whose métier was the so-called sweet song” (24). Albertson’s criticism is harsh. Even though Smith’s vocals are not comparable to Rainey’s or Bessie Smith’s, it is the content of the song more than the vocals that render it a distinguishable blues composition. The song cannot be forgotten because 1) it expresses viewpoints and behaviors akin to a subset of the black working classes often ridiculed, rendered silent, deemed deviant, and 2) this record provides a window into the imaginative spirts of a working class artist with a working class ethos whose artistic contributions were as much a part of the formation of the new modern age as any writer of the New Negro in Literature Era. Another critic offers a less critical view of “Crazy Blues” writing, “overdetermined or not, the extraordinary success of ‘Crazy Blues,’ was at least partly a result of the complex symbolic rebellion it enacted, the truth it spoke to white power” (Gussow 12). Or rather I suggest the truth it spoke against white power and black middle-class constraints and repression.
These two paragraphs taken from page 99 speak to the larger concerns of the book. Black women from all social classes participated in discussions about the race in the 1920s and ‘30s. The challenge as I note on page 99 is that Black women singing the blues were often relegated to the margins on questions about the race. Yes, their blues lyrics openly discussed what was then taboo topics such as sex, same sex attraction, interpersonal violence, drinking, etc., but these modern women also cared about what happened to the people in their communities. Thus, their lyrics also described how tuberculosis ravaged their communities, how the criminal justice system harmed their men, how Black love empowered them to live within the restraints of Jim Crow as well as other pertinent issues confronting the race. Their secular efforts to entertain and their sacred efforts to heal disarmed some Black elites, those in the emerging professional class, and the religiously minded yet they pressed on.

As page 99 illustrates, rather than rely on the mythology of the classic blues singers as fun loving and fancy free, I turn to Mamie Smith’s recording of “Crazy Blues,” to offer an early view into women like her from the working class who plunged headfirst into the new modern age to add their voice alongside their contemporaries talking about the race in the New Negro Era. Like Angelina Weld Grimké, Jessie Fauset, and others Mamie Smith also had something powerful to say about Black people’s place in the world. That other classic blues singers were recorded after Mamie Smith signaled that Black women from the working class could speak for themselves.

Given this summation, I’d say the Page 99 Test passes in this case. Any reader can turn to page 99 to understand the motivations for the book but also some of its key assertions.
Follow Coretta M. Pittman on Twitter.

--Marshal Zeringue