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Title: "I been to hear the highest kind of opera grand": blues, "good music," and the performance of race on record, 1920-1921
Author(s): Surles, Elizabeth K.
Advisor(s): Magee, Jeffrey S.
Department / Program: Music
Discipline: Music
Degree Granting Institution: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Degree: M.Mus.
Genre: Thesis
Subject(s): blues
Mamie Smith
Lucille Hegamin
Mary Stafford
Lillyn Brown
Daisy Martin
Katie Crippen
Ethel Waters
good music
race
Abstract: In the early twentieth century, record companies frequently used the designation “good music” as a catch-all category to describe serious art music selections, and the commercial and cultural value afforded to “good music” becomes audible on early vocal blues records made between 1920 and 1921 by performers including Mamie Smith, Lucille Hegamin, Mary Stafford, Lillyn Brown, Daisy Martin, Katie Crippen, and Ethel Waters. The resultant mixture of “high” and “low” musical styles complicates the definition of the blues as an African American genre, given the historic racial affiliation of “high-brow” music with whites. Musical features related to “good music” include the women’s vibratos, modes of diction and vocal resonance, ornamentation styles, and sometimes their ranges. The ensembles that accompanied the women often, but not always, reinforced the sound of “good music” on early blues records through their uniform approach to dynamics and tempo as well as by changing the instrumental and vocal balance to suit the composition and the constraints of the acoustic recording studio. “Good music” notwithstanding, the women also frequently utilized twelve-bar blues form, took considerable liberty with notated compositions, employed pronunciation that signaled blackness, and emphasized blue notes, syncopation, and dance rhythms. Blues lyrics that contrasted with the values of “good music” included references to sex, dance, animalistic behavior, comedy, Prohibition, youth, coon songs, violence, ragtime, mental pathology, and more. Of all the recordings these women made, Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” has received the most scholarly attention, but its status in the blues canon has served to camouflage the influence of “good music” on early vocal blues. To re-contextualize early vocal blues within a culture of “good music,” this paper examines the stylistic mélange on the earliest records by African American female blues vocalists in an attempt to understand better the dynamics of performative racial identity and musical expression at the start of an important era, when African Americans entered the music industry with increasing frequency.
Issue Date: 2010-06-22
URI: http://hdl.handle.net/2142/16503
Rights Information: Copyright 2010 Elizabeth K. Surles
Date Available in IDEALS: 2010-06-22
Date Deposited: May 2010


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