Aug. 10, 1920
Mamie Smith sang Perry Bradford’s song “Crazy Blues,” detailing the “outrage by a woman driven mad by mistreatment,” music critic David Hajdu wrote in The New York Times.
“Now the doctor’s gonna do all that he can,” she advised, “but what you’re gonna need is an undertaker man.”
The tune struck a chord with Black Americans, still reeling from the violence of 1919’s “Red Summer.” The song popularized the blues, selling more than 2 million copies, Hajdu wrote. “People were not only moved by it; they moved to it.”
The success of the song prompted major record companies to market to Black audiences and paved the way for other Black female performers. Smith’s voice “changed presumptions about what popular music was, what it could do — what kind of language it could speak to us about the depth and intricacies of our inner lives,” Daphne A. Brooks wrote in The New York Times.
A century later, the blues continues to play an outsized role in American music. “Hatred and violence have hardly disappeared from the American landscape,” Hajdu wrote. “Neither has the blues.”