(Feature) The only original American art

It’s been said that blues, jazz, and their progeny, which includes rock n roll and hip hop, are the only indigenous American art forms — that is, ones that did not exist earlier somewhere else.

This is not a slight to the first nations. Native peoples of the southwest, notably the Navajo, are famous for a highly distinctive and original style of sandpainting, for example, but sandpainting (and other forms of dry painting) have been practiced for literally tens of thousands of years, going back some 30,000 years in Australia and perhaps even earlier in parts of Africa.

Whether native Americans invented it themselves or brought it with them from somewhere else isn’t really the point. The art existed earlier, as did oil painting, sculpture, classical music, wood carving, pottery, dance, poetry, prose, printing, fashion, pyrotechnics, glass-blowing, jewelry-making, architecture, cooking, theater, film, photography, and of course music.

It’s always tricky to say something is an original (or the first or the best of its category or whatever). As soon as you do, someone comes along to say “Well actually…” Categories of art are overlapping and nonexclusive. We can always go up or down a level or parse things a different way to get a different “first.”

Take music. It’s been around forever. It certainly predates our Homo sapiens. Whether you count nonhuman forms, such as bird or whale song, as music will depend on your criteria. Personally, I don’t see a significant difference between a male humpback courting females from afar with vocalization he composed himself and a rock star gyrating in front of fans on stage, or a troubadour strumming a lyre for a lady, but if you do, more power to you.

That’s not to say what a whale is doing is creatively identical to what a classical composer does; simply that the human composer didn’t invent composing, and humans didn’t invent music, only more complex styles of it.

I would argue that the blues inaugurated a new form in that archaic medium in the same sense that the invention of oil-based paint inaugurated a new form in that medium, which goes back at least to our caveman days when early hominins applied color pigment to walls. As such, the blues (and its diverse and explosive progeny) is the only art form in any medium to originate in America.

I am not the originator of this idea, by the way, but it does seem correct to me. It all turns, of course, on how you define “form,” which really only becomes clear in arrears. That is, if the blues appeared and flourished and waned and nothing else was done with it and what was played on the radio today was more like, say, old-timey ballads or operatic aria, I’m not sure we would recognize it as a distinct form versus simply an American brand of the kind of folk music that’s been sung the world over for centuries. As with life, species of art emerge with growth and differentiation.

One could argue — and some people do — that hip hop has emerged as its own separate form that way. If it continues to grow and diversify, I would say that’s true. But then, that could also be said of electronic music. Hip hop is only 40 years old. (Electronic music roughly ten years older.) We can’t predict its future any more than someone in 1940 could’ve predicted that rock n roll would emerge before the end of the decade and that it would supplant the wildly popular Big Band music of the day. We won’t really know until we see what happens.

For now, I’m still inclined to lump jazz, rock, and hip hop together as highly diverse and creative variants of a single something that started with…


 

For those who want to go back even earlier, well… it gets hard. The term”blues” doesn’t appear until 1905-8, and most of the classic recordings date from the 1920s, when the technology became cheap enough to be cost effective — not only to make but to distribute.

Prior to that, songs were passed orally and so varied significantly. There was no “official” version. When finally recorded, it was usually by white folks, who “dressed them up proper,” as indicated in this extended passage from The Encyclopedia of Great Popular Song Recordings about a late-19th-century African American tune known as “The Bully” (recording below):


 

W. C. Handy in his autobiography recalled it as being popular among black stevedores along the Mississippi River levees of St. Louis when he was stranded there for a time in 1893. The earliest known contemporary reference to the song was in a Kansas City black newspaper, the Leavenworth Herald, on December 8, 1894.

It would not be until eleven months after this reference that the song was published. There were actually six different copyrighted versions within a six-month period, the first on November 12, 1895, as Looking for A Bully, followed by three in January, 1896 (Dat New Bully, The New Bully, and De New Bully), and the final one in April again as The New Bully, all with different authors and various different lyrics or musical elements. The one that hit it big was Charles Trevathan‘s song, published on February 19, 1896, under the title Ma Irwin’s Bully Song. Based on the black Southern rural version transcribed by Howard W. Odum in 1908 and published three years later in the Journal of American Folklore. Muir believes the original black folk song used a straight 12-bar structure without the 16-measure chorus that is found in five of the six copyrighted treatments, including Irwin’s, and which was probably added for commercial purposes.

Another striking element is that the Charles Trevathan/May Irwin song, unlike any of the other “Bullies,” contains a couplet that would become very familiar in later years: “When you see me comin’, hist your windows high / When you see me goin’, hang your head and cry.” This “floating folk strain” had previously been collected by Gates Thomas in 1892 as the last verse of a black folk song: later it turned up in many songs. including a 1928 record by Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas, Texas Easy Street Blues, and the 1941 Count Basic/Jimmy Rushing hit Goin’ to Chicago Blues. Despite all this, The Bully is not blues. G. Malcolm Laws (in Native American Balladry) classified it as a “Negro ballad” in the tradition of bad-man tales.

May Irwin performed at Tony Pastor’s theater in New York and became a Broadway star in the end-of-1893 show A Country Sport. She introduced The Bully, her trademark song, in the stage production The Widow Jones, which opened in February 1896. Irwin happened to be traveling by train when she saw sportswriter Trevathan entertaining passengers by singing an early, bawdy version of the number (which he had, in turn, learned from Pullman porters); she encouraged him to develop it into a full song. According to blues scholar Paul Oliver, Trevathan may have picked up the number from traveling black songsters; a St. Louis brothel singer known as Mama Lou is said to have performed it in the mid-1890s at Babe Connors’ club.

The year 1896 was big for May Irwin for another reason, as she made history by repeating for the Edison motion picture cameras a kissing scene from Widow Jones
with her stage partner John C. Rice; The Kiss gained national renown and controversy, denounced as immoral by some religious leaders. May became particularly associated with ragtime-style numbers. More than a decade after she first performed the song, May finally recorded The Bully at her debut session for Victor in 1907 (one of just six songs she would record). As was unfortunately the custom for “coon songs” of the time, it briefly uses language that would soon be unacceptable. (“I’m a Tennessee nigger…”)


 

The song below is obviously a trussed-up version made for the stage (i.e., for white people), which raises another important point. It would be decades before black folks would be able to regularly record their own music — which is why I wanted you to hear this version. However, if you’re clever, you can hear the original poking through.

Also, note the topical similarity to modern rap, which participates in the long history of its development — the sexual bravado, the references to hustling and street crime, etc.

This 2015 reproduction by the Cincinnati’s University Theater Orchestra is faithful to the original, meaning it includes the N-word and some other offensive language.

You were warned.

From a century later in 1997: