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Long Lost Blues: Popular Blues in America, 1850-1920.

Long Lost Blues: Popular Blues in America, 1850-1920. By Peter C. Muir. (Music in American Life.) Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010. [x, 254 p. ISBN 9780252034879 (hardcover), $85; ISBN 9780252076763 (paperback), $35.] Musk examples, illustrations, bibliography, indexes.

The first blues record released for African American consumers appeared in 1920, Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blaes" on Okeh 4169. Blues historians have long known that the earliest blues sheet music was published in 1912, but for reasons of access (many copies have been in private collections) and training (many researchers of the blues have been trained in disciplines other than music) they have not been able to explore much about sheet music beyond what Samuel Charters set forth in 1959 (The Country Blues [New York: Rinehart]). In Long Lost Blues. Peter Muir sets out to plumb the full depth of the blues printed during the 1910s, and to assess the presence of blues antecedents in sheet music from the previous decades.

The book is an expanded publication of Muir's 2004 Ph.D. dissertation "Before 'Crazy Blues': Commercial Blues in America 1850-1920" (City University of New York). The core material in the dissertation retained for the book was his overview of commercial blues during the 1910s, a distinction between the sad "homeopathic" blues and the happy "allopathic" bines, a methodology of textual and musical analysis of blues derived from the characteristics of 1910s sheet music blues, a profile of "proto-blues" composer Hughie Cannon, a look at the 12-measure songs sharing the same tune as "Frankie and Johnny" (or "Frankie and Albert"), and a concluding account of the emergence and early dissemination of blues. Also carried over to the book were Muir's acknowledgements to the Library of Congress staff Wayne Shirley and David Sager, and to the private collectors who supplied many rare piano rolls and sheet music publications, especially Thornton Hagert and Michael Montgomery, neither of whom are well known to blues researchers. The dissertation's appendices presenting the list of blues sheet music for 1912-20, the discography covering 1914-21, and the piano rollography up to 1921, are not reprinted in the book, but they are given on the author's website (Peter Muir, "Long Lost Blues,", accessed 23 May 2010). Other portions of the dissertation not included in the book are a provocative historiography about the lack of writing about 1910s blues and its sheet music, and a lengthy discussion of the folk culture tune "Sweet Thing" and its appearance in "coon" songs published in the 1890s.

Having removed the dissertation portions that would have been distracting, Muir fixes his perspective on the 1910s, adding new chapters that widen our appreciation of the blues of that decade. Especially important is the new chapter on the music of W. C. Handy, which analyzes and evaluates nine blues from the prime of his composing career (1909-20). From there, Muir proceeds to look at Southern published blues, especially those composed by Euday Bowman, Perry Bradford, and Gorge W. Thomas, showing the ways that these composers drew from the contemporary Southern performance practices. A new overview of the "popular blues industry" of the 1910s and an appendix of titular blues published as sheet music in 1912-15 are also welcome. The remaining new chapter, "Curing the Blues with the Blues," develops the homeopathic/allopathic contrast from the dissertation towards a refined description in 1910s terms of what American people expected or wanted the blues to do for their momentary moods and dispositions.

With these additions and the new ordering of the chapters, the resulting book is an improvement over the dissertation. The earlier effort gave first an overview, then textual and musical characteristics, thirdly the chapters on proto-blues, and finally an account of the emergence of the blues; in short, the first half was overview and elements, the second half was a historical treatment of proto-blues and early blues from 1890 through 1910. The book has the new overview chapter; the textual and musical characteristics; then the new chapters on Handy, Southern published blues, and "curing the blues" in 1910s terms; and finally proto-blues. Therefore, what we now have is a first half consisting of overview and elements, and a second half presenting thoroughly the documented blues of the 1910s in its own right and terms, with the proto-blues being explored but not being requisite to understanding the first commercial blues publications. Thus, this reorganization hangs Muir's presentation squarely and concretely on what he recovered in 1910s published words and music, and not on the proto-blues and earliest blues which (lacking the recordings, transcriptions and sheet music) remain matters of informed conjecture.

My high regard for Muir's work is balanced with some critical comments that I offer as starting points for new research with Long Lost Blues in hand. I wonder if Muir lays too great a stress on ballads as bines antecedents. In his "Curing the Blues with the Blues" chapter, Muir goes so far as to offer Dowlaud's Elizabethan lute/voice repertory as homeopathic music as an analogy to American "folk blues." This analogy is not entirely persuasive--in fact, even Muir seems to back off from it (pp. 92-93) because of the great stylistic differences between Dowland and blues--but it does make me wonder if the homeopathic nature of Dowland's music and the subsequent British ballads have shaped British commentaries since 1950 of blues as ballads. I do agree with him that the songs sharing the melody of "Frankie and Albert" do need to be examined as proto-blues, because the imitative nature of blues means that the twelve-measure blues must have come from 12-measure antecedents. But in my own research surveys, I have often found 12-measure forms in the popular dance music of the British Isles and of Americans white and black (see Edward Komara and Dave Rubin, "Introduction: The Origin of 12-Bar Blues," in 12-Bar Blues: The Complete Guide for Guitar [Milwaukee: Hal Leonard, 1999], 4-11; also Komara, "The Blues," in Komara, ed., The Encyclopedia of the Blues [New York: Routledge, 2006], 105-29) that merit consideration as antecedents to 12-measure songs and later 12-measure blues. Also, I view the halving of note-values, from quarter- and eighth-notes to eighth- and sixteenth-notes, as a necessary development from 12-measure songs to 12-measure blues, especially to those blues having the call-and-response phrases; Muir seems to mention this reduction only in passing as "rhythmic, compression" (p. 212). Researchers should use Muir's list of 1910s blues sheet music to identify period songs and blues in an examination of the change to shorter note-values. In so doing, they can then trace at least the last stage of evolution from song to blues.

Illustrations abound, including photographic portraits (some rare) and sheet music covers. The music examples derived from sheet music publications, many of complete songs and blues, are the primary sources, and not merely illustrative of performances (as notated transcriptions from recordings have to be). In the dissertation, for those songs Muir gave whole instead of in part, there were complete photographic reproductions from early printings. For the book version, the same songs and blues are uniformly, neatly, and carefully rendered in engraving-standard notation. On his website (, accessed 23 May 2010) Muir provides playback and download links to his piano performances of the music examples; his playing lends charm to many compositions that were, after all, meant to provide entertainment in home parlors.

Long Lost Blues is required reading for lovers of the blues and historians of American popular music. "Sheet music is not my thing" is not a valid excuse for ignoring it, because Muir has succeeded in pushing back permanently the point of our historical certainty about early bines from 1920 to 1910. Furthermore, he provides new musically informed thoughts about proto-blues and the earliest, datable blues of the 1890s and the 1900s, and they demand the most considerate of scholarly responses.


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Author:Komara, Edward
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2010
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