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JACKI LYDEN, host:

Now we continue our series about some of the most important sounds in American history.

(Soundbite of National Recording Registry intro)

LYDEN: Each year the Library of Congress deems 50 audio recordings worthy of preservation for all time. We selected a few to tell you about on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Today's chapter from the National Recording Registry, Mamie Smith's 1920 recording of Crazy Blues. And our cast includes the archivist.

Mr. MICHAEL TAFT (American Folklife Center): My name is Michael Taft. I am the head of the archive of folk culture at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

LYDEN: The former executive of Epic Records.

Mr. LAWRENCE COHN (Former Record Executive): My name is Lawrence Cohn and I'm quite proud of a book I did in 1996 called Nothing but the Blues: The Music and the Musicians.

LYDEN: And the 1960s activist.

Professor ANGELA DAVIS (Activist): My name is Angela Davis. I am professor of history of consciousness and feminist studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I am also the author of Blues Legacies and Black Feminism.

(Soundbite of song "Crazy Blues")

Prof. DAVIS: Mamie Smith was the firs vocalist to record the blues.

(Soundbite of song "Crazy Blues")

Ms. MAMIE SMITH (Singer): (Singing) I can't see the light. I can't eat a bite 'cause the man I love he don't treat me right. He makes me feel so blue; I don't know what to do.

Mr. TAFT: Mamie Smith was rather peculiar. It's funny that she was the first to record this kind of blues because she was not primarily a blues singer. At the age of 10 she was on the stage dancing. She was a dancer and a singer and an actress and she performed in films in the '30s and '40s. She was an all around entertainer but I don't think she herself would have called herself necessarily a blues singer in the way that perhaps Ma Rainey or Bessie Smith were.

Mr. COHN: These people who recorded in the early 20s were working as vaudevillians in various guises, as dancers, as comedians, as singers...

Prof. DAVIS: But no black blues singer had been recorded in 1920. And in a sense it was happenstance that Mamie Smith acquired the opportunity to record Crazy Blues. Earlier in the year Sophie Tucker had been scheduled for a recording session but became ill and Perry Bradford managed to persuade Okeh Records to allow Mamie Smith to do the recording session instead.

Mr. COHN: And Bradford, who I got to know when I was a teenager in the '50s, he wrote these songs then he produced them and he really is the guy that sold the concept to the record companies that black female vaudevillians could translate to blues and that there was money to be made.

Mr. TAFT: And that recording sold really well.

Mr. COHN: Right out of the box I think they sold something like 10,000 recordings the first week.

Prof. DAVIS: Within a month it had sold over 75,000 copies.

(Soundbite of song "Crazy Blues")

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) I ain't had nothing but bad news so I got the crazy blues.

Mr. TAFT: There was a market there that had not been served and Mamie Smith and her recording was - it's like the opening shot. I think the black public was ready to start buying records. There was enough of a working class with money that were ready, willing and able to buy recordings that were coming out of their own culture.

Prof. DAVIS: The recording of Crazy Blues led the way for the professionalization of black music for the black entertainment industry and indeed for the immense popularity of black music today.

(Soundbite of song "Crazy Blues")

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) I gladly snatched it back. Now my babe's gone and gave me the sack.

Prof. DAVIS: So there was a time in the history of this country when white people were able to live and experience what they thought of as American culture without having the slightest idea about the creativity of black people. And now, of course, black music stands in for American musical culture not only within the country but all over the world.

(Soundbite of song "Crazy Blues")

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) I ain't had nothing but bad news. Now I got the crazy blues. The blues.

LYDEN: Mamie Smith and Crazy Blues. Another chapter in our series from the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress. Produced by Ben Manilla and Media Mechanics. To hear Mamie Smith sing Crazy Blues uninterrupted and learn about the growth of race records, go to our Web site, npr.org.

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