Ragged But Right by Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff

In their previous book, Out of Sight, Abbott and Seroff presented an overview of African-American musical development from 1889 to 1895 that was based on decades of research, primarily in the black newspapers and journals of the day. Their new book applies the same rigorous scholarship to the era that immediately preceded the rise of jazz and blues, with the same excellent results. This is not an easy subject to approach, because the overtly racist social structure of the time forced black songwriters, publishers and performers to look for ways to retain their dignity while playing the clown. Compromises that were necessary for survival may mortify the modern sensibility, but the only way to gain an understanding of the great achievements of the time is to deal with the context. Abbott and Seroff are exemplary in this crucial area.

The book is divided into sections that deal with four primary avenues of employment that were open to black entertainers; the ragtime-era shows that were vehicles for stars like Bert Williams and Ernest Hogan, later shows that used the name “The Smart Set,” sideshow presentations that toured with circuses and wild west shows, and minstrel shows that also performed in big-top tents. Blues and early-jazz fans will know something of the first and last categories, though really the vague allusions to, for instance, the Rabbit Foot Minstrels in blues histories can hardly prepare the reader to grasp the huge significance that pioneering troupes like this had for the development of African-American culture.

Abbott and Seroff make scores of telling points throughout, including the observation that it wasn’t records that made America aware of blues; musicians that anyone could hear on a typical day at the circus had spread the word long before Mamie Smith recorded “Crazy Blues” in 1920.