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Categorizing SoundGenre and Twentieth-Century Popular Music$
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David Brackett

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780520248717

Published to California Scholarship Online: May 2017

DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520248717.001.0001

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Forward to the Past

Forward to the Past

Race Music in the 1920s

(p.69) 3 Forward to the Past
Categorizing Sound

David Brackett

University of California Press

This chapter charts the emergence of “race music”: the earliest music industry category associated with African Americans. This emergence is set against “presentist” histories of blues and jazz, in which historical narratives are tailored to present day beliefs about those genres. The argument is that now-current ideas about racial homogeneity, anti-commercialism, and gender (i.e., the dominance of male participants) in these genres is projected onto the past, creating a more orderly picture than existed in the public discourse of the time. After a discussion of the dominance of minstrelsy tropes in early blues and jazz prior to 1920, the chapter analyzes the stabilization of the race music category following the commercial success of Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” in 1920. The conclusion proposes that the label “race music” brought together then-current ideas of African American identity with an identifiable sound.

Keywords:   race music, African American music, blues, jazz, gender, minstrelsy, Mamie Smith, “Crazy Blues”

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