Rick Hellman
KU News Service

Blues scholar debunks notion hokum was inauthentic

Wed, 11/07/2018



LAWRENCE – A University of Kansas scholar is pushing back against the long-held scholarly view that the early, bawdy Chicago blues style known as hokum was a corruption of “authentic” Southern blues.

Rather, Associate Professor of Music Roberta Freund Schwartz writes in an article in the fall 2018 edition of the Journal of the Society for American Music that, while more sophisticated and commercial than country blues, hokum hits like “It’s Tight Like That” are themselves an authentic expression of a genre she calls "city style."

In so doing, Freund Schwartz, author of “How Britain Got the Blues: The Transmission and Reception of American Blues Styles to the British Isles” (Ashgate, 2007), is taking on no less a blues scholar than the late, renowned folklorist and record producer Alan Lomax. 

In her article “How Blue Can You Get? ‘It’s Tight Like That’ and the Hokum Blues,” Freund Schwartz quotes Lomax as asserting that recording executives of the era “encouraged their singers to produce cheap ‘novelty’ blues, the sillier the better,” which overshadowed “the poignant and often profound poesy of the earlier country blues….”

Lomax and others who held this view, she writes, “suggest that these songs, with their evocations of vaudeville and the medicine show, sexual innuendo and rambunctious character, betrayed the meaning and realism of ‘true’ blues, and thus couldn’t have been the conscious choice of the performers.”

Freund Schwartz has found, however, that this genre arose from the African-American artists themselves, was shepherded by a middle-management layer of African-American industry figures (studio musicians, A&R men, etc.) and was widely accepted by the black community in Chicago and around the country.

“I am pushing back on this commercialization argument,” Freund Schwartz said recently. “Seventy-five cents, which is what a record cost, was not a negligible amount in the 1920s. It’s not something to throw away frivolously. You are not going to spend it on something you don’t want. This notion that record companies dictated things to artists; it’s completely the other way around. They are actually pushing the direction. Who gets recorded; who are the big stars? Those are the people whose records sell. It’s a democracy.”

In the article, Freund Schwartz traces Georgia Tom and Tampa Red’s 1928 Vocalion recording of “It’s Tight Like That” back to an older song (Papa Charlie Jackson’s 1925 “Shake That Thing”) and outlines its popularity upon its release, including the nearly two dozen cover versions and imitations that it quickly spawned.

Moreover, she situates the hokum craze within a larger musical phenomenon she calls the city style. It’s an outgrowth of the Great Migration of the early 20th century, in which over 1 million blacks fled Southern segregation and discrimination for the North.

In the article’s final section, Freund Schwartz makes the point that hokum has its own authenticity.

“Now you have a large concentration of African-Americans who are developing an urban culture,” she said. “They don’t necessarily want to give up their folkways, their music that was familiar, but they are more sophisticated urbanites now. They don’t want to have it exactly the same way. They hear jazz, boogie-woogie, vaudeville music, and the city style combines elements of all of these different kinds of music that are being constantly swept north by the new waves of migrants into something that fits their new image of themselves.”

Drilling down further, Freund Schwartz writes that purveyors and fans of hokum were engaging in a sort of “resistive discourse” against the black status quo.

In the 1920s, Freund Schwartz said, leaders of Chicago’s black intelligentsia “felt music based on spirituals and good jazz, like Duke Ellington … was of merit and would get white support and recognition. They didn’t necessarily want this double-entendre, countrified, rural throwback music that often played on African-American stereotypes. … So any embrace of blues is sort of a thumb in the eye. Because the blues was really the music of the lower and working classes.”

The research she undertook for the article has continued, and she has begun work on a book on the larger city style phenomenon.

“There has never really been a good name for blues that isn’t county blues and isn’t what we would call classic blues like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey,” Freund Schwartz said, “but there are these other artists that are really hard to classify. They have been too popularly oriented for hard-core blues scholars to be interested in, not jazzy enough for jazz scholars to be interested in and not pop-oriented enough for people writing about pop music to capture very much of it.”

The book, she said, “will cover from 1924 to 1941 or early 1942, when the nationwide recording strike began.”

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