Before the Original Dixieland Jass Band ever sat down to play, before the Devil got Skip James’s woman, before Buddy Bolden and Robert Johnson were even born, American music was getting hot. So argues David Wondrich in Stomp and Swerve, his saucy new history of the birth of blues and jazz from 1843 to 1924. Wondrich, a Voice contributor and Esquire booze maven, traces the postbellum effects of the African and Irish diasporas on pop, first through marching bands, minstrelsy, and ragtime and then into the whorehouses and gin mills where what he calls “Topworld” and “Underworld” met. By Prohibition, the two key elements he credits to American music—propulsive drive (stomp) and note-bending deviation (swerve)—were in full flower. Whence blues, jazz, r&b, r’n’r, funk, hip-hop, and whatever you kids are calling it these days.
Talk about a secret history: A lot of the action Wondrich describes is (duh) unrecorded or subsequently lost, most of what survives is faint and scratchy, and much of what you can hear is so offensive to modern ears that both Top and Under would prefer to pretend it never existed. But it does exist, and the “acoustic music” (i.e., recorded into someone’s hat, before the use of electricity) reissue label Archeophone has put together a CD of this lost hit parade. Without which, presumably, you’d never hear Jimmy Durante jamming on piano with the band of Lester Lanin’s older, cooler brother, Sam. Or banjo monster Vess Osman’s scalding renditions of “St. Louis Tickle” (a/k/a “Buddy Bolden’s Blues”), Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” and “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” a saloon song that became a huge hit 101 years ago, after African American minstrel Ernest Hogan (they were common—go figure) changed the unprintable word pimps to a term that now requires a warning label (the bottom of the jewel case reads, “Contains Racially Derogatory Language”).
There’s not-so-secret history too—from the bands of T.A. Edison and J.P. Sousa through a pre-Opry Uncle Dave Macon to right where Columbia’s Louis Armstrong Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man box begins, with young Pops and Sidney Bechet ripping up “Cake Walking Babies (Back Home)” in 1925. And corn galore, due to a recording bar that kept black musicians out of the studio and opened the door to thinner imitators who knew something was happening but didn’t know what it was (did you, Art Hickman?).
Not every track requires a lengthy liner note. You don’t need to know that Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues,” recorded in 1920 with her Jazz Hounds, was the first real jazz record, or that it was the release that proved black people could make and buy records, to appreciate the contrast between Smith’s outraged vocal and the Hounds’ seen-it-all brass. You might have read somewhere that the superstar dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle would only perform with the bands of Harlem impresario James Reese Europe, but once you hear Europe’s “Castle House Rag” and “Circus Day in Dixie,” you’ll immediately understand how his Underworld characters could have stomped their way straight to the top of Topworld.
The most affecting cuts, though, are the swervier ones. The proto-blues of Dan W. Quinn and Sophie Tucker prove that even artists working in other ethnic idioms had heard the news that tweaking the melody and laughing at the world’s shittiness were now OK. The greatest revelation is the music of Bert Williams, who Wondrich calls the “first black man in America,” emphasis on “man,” because “he was the first guy for whom the . . . color of his skin wasn’t the only thing most folk needed to know about him.” His signature number, “Nobody,” defies any genre; its phrasing, lyric, and spirit are so singularly defiant, humane, and absurd that it’s no surprise to learn that his career in vaudeville and slapstick one-reelers was just a few years ahead of Buster Keaton’s. I bet Samuel Beckett loved the song to pieces.