With Long Lost Blues, Peter Muir has given us a unique and intriguing look at the earliest published blues. A completely different sort of blues book, it concentrates almost entirely on commercial blues of the first two decades of the 20th century. Up to 1920 when the so-called “race records” began, the primary source of blues available to the public was sheet music. However, the majority of such sheet music is highly inauthentic. This style is called “popular blues” by Peter Muir, as opposed to the genuine “folk blues” which developed directly from African-American tradition. Much of popular blues is hardly blues at all but just vaudeville-style music sometimes in the 12-bar blues formula with not-very-sincere blue notes thrown in for effect. In this early sheet music we can just note glimpses of the influence that the folk blues was having on popular blues. Folk blues influenced vaudeville performers, who in turn influenced composers of sheet music. Thus, the presence of folk elements in most popular blues sheet music is doubly diluted. It may seem to be of little value to even consider early blues sheet music since it is far from being a pure source. However, some sense of the musical ideas of the blues during this time can be gleaned from this sheet music, and it is interesting to see how blues elements slowly crept into popular music. As long as we keep in mind that the sheet music is not representative of folk blues then it is useful to study. Muir’s detailed examination of this early blues gives us an idea of which blues publications most closely paralleled their folk sources, and thus provide a better understanding of the blues’ origins.
Since the music discussed in Long Lost Blues largely exists in sheet music form, Muir has the luxury of using numerous examples from the scores to illustrate his points. Furthermore he alleges that detailed musical analysis in blues research is sorely lacking (a point of view that I have taken to heart with this website). Indeed, Muir delves deep in his research of the period’s sheet music, discussing the relative authenticity of certain compositions compared to others. As Muir puts it, “Each of the 456 blues published before 1921 can be viewed as being located at a particular point on a continuum that ranges from full-fledged Tin Pan Alley songs like ‘Broadway Blues’ to overtly folk-derived works…” He gives special emphasis to the folk-derived blues such as Snakey Blues by Will Nash. In that case he even reproduces the entire score with commentary about its features.
Muir notes the wide variety of tempos found in early blues sheet music and recordings and explains this in part by categorizing them into two groups: homeopathic and allopathic blues. Homeopathic blues is in the character of a lament, the typical moaning type of blues that we think of in connection with the Mississippi delta. Allopathic blues, by contrast, is faster and more cheerful, the intent being therapeutic rather than expressive, in order to drive the blues away. Most of the commercial blues from the early 20th century fits the allopathic type, particularly the fast and boisterous recordings by W.C. Handy, James Reese Europe, Wilbur Sweatman, and other band leaders. While allopathic blues may seem to miss the blues feeling entirely, there are certainly later examples of faster blues such as boogie woogie.
The actual development of the blues style is, oddly, saved for the final chapter. Included is a discussion of the growth of the 12-bar blues structure, particularly in the works of Hughie Cannon. Although the first classic 12-bar blues pattern appears in 1904 in Chapman and Smith’s One O’ Them Things, Cannon had come close to it a few years before in songs like You Needn’t Come Home. Many of Cannon’s songs are related to the proto-blues Frankie and Johnny, which comes very close to the blues harmonic pattern and remained in the repertoire of some of the older blues artists.
In summation, Long Lost Blues is probably the best and most detailed book about how the blues developed. One of its most valuable contributions is that, as the title implies, it brings to our attention some early published blues that are close to folk blues sources and thus worth investigating. Among these I particularly recommend Dallas Blues, Snakey Blues, Weary Blues, and the publications by W. C. Handy, Euday Bowman, and George W. Thomas.
A good sheet music source for early blues is the collection Beale Street and other Classic Blues compiled by David Jasen. It includes Snakey Blues, Weary Blues, and blues by W.C. Handy and George W. Thomas.