How Did the Blues Become the Blues?

AP / Beth J. Harpaz

There’s a certain type of scholar who is obsessed with the Blues. The music’s historic record is riddled with holes, and, like swamp water, speculation fills the gaps, producing a narrative built as much from legend as fact, where a traveling guitarist like Robert Johnson can stroll down a dark rural road to make deals with the devil. Blues’ blurry, mythological past only makes the subject more seductive. Still, there are certain matters of record to contend with. With so many scholars searching for new revelations, it seems like every rock has been overturned and every shellac pre-war record unearthed from those Southern attics, but like all frontiers, there’s always more to discover.

In The Sewanee Review, essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan explores the Early Blues, a time in the music’s development before people started calling songs “blues songs” based on their definitive a-a-b rhyme scheme and 12-bar structure. There in the not-so-blurry past of early published articles, Sullivan finds an African American journalist named Columbus Bragg who was the first to call a song a blues song. Although Bragg predates all the well-known Blues scholars, he is largely absent from the larger narrative. But it was Bragg who, in the 1914 issue of the African American newspaper the Chicago Defender, wrote “Mr. William Abel, the race’s greatest descriptive singer, will sing the first Blues song, entitled ‘Curses,’ by Mr. Paul Dresser.” And with those words, he simplified a diverse group of musical traditions and helped codify a genre.

That sentence in the Defender is the first “first blues.” It represents the first time, that we know of, when someone speculated about what the first blues song had been, and who had created it. This is also the first time we ever find these two words together, “blues” and “song.”  The first time someone ever calls a song “a blues song,” he’s actively wondering what the first one was. The form and the obsession with the form’s roots are born together. This suggests that when we wonder about the beginning of the blues, we are participating in the form; it is a way of playing the blues.

Another extraordinary thing about the sentence is that the man doing the wondering is black. That’s not how it’s supposed to be. “Blues scholarship” is educated white men writing on old black music. But this is why the Early Blues rewards study. The writer’s name is Columbus Bragg, or to go by the fuller version he gave the draft board in 1918, the Rev. Columbus Sylvester Clifton Bragg. He was preaching then (or claimed to be; he often grew inventive when asked to provide biographical data) at a tiny church called Israel of God, White Horse Army, a black evangelical sect that had recently bloomed in nearby Sycamore, Illinois. The members keep their headquarters there to this day. They possess some old records, but these make no mention of a Rev. Bragg. The only other noticeable entry on his draft card is a brief observation made by the registrar, concerning Bragg’s physical faculties. The man, who must have examined one too many inductees that day, has written in big bold cursive, “Deaf Eye.”

It is perhaps an unfortunate description for an arts critic. Bragg’s slender fame, his not-quite-oblivion, depends entirely on a brief 1914 stint as a culture columnist for the Chicago Defender. The newspaper had been founded about a decade before, just as Bragg was coming to the city, arriving by train from Louisiana with a half-German wife named Lillian and their daughter, Lumie. He seems to have made the decision on the train to rewrite his past.

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