Tag Archives: Richmond

Billy Sunday: Revival in Richmond

Billy Sunday preaches in Jacksonville, Illinois, 1908. Indiana Memory.

The Reverend Billy Sunday, born November 19, 1863, started life as a professional baseball player before his conversion to Christianity in the late 1880s. From 1891 to 1895, Sunday learned the craft of evangelizing with an apprenticeship at the Chicago Y.M.C.A. (of which evangelical icon Dwight Moody was a co-founder), and by 1896 had become a professional evangelist. For the next 40 years, Sunday preached a Presbyterianism that represented “the more ‘American’ side of that denominational tradition—a broad, somewhat tolerant, not highly doctrinal, moralistic, patriotic, and often optimistic version of evangelical Protestantism.” His “sensational and vaudevillian” style urged personal responsibility and growth, which he advocated for in his urban evangelizing campaigns. From Sunday’s style of Americanized evangelism, one can easily see a connection to more modern evangelicals like Billy Graham.

Richmond Palladium, May 2, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

For many years, Sunday made Winona Lake, Indiana his home with his wife and family. It gave him more opportunities to hold revivals in Indiana, especially ones lasting for weeks at a time. One such revival came to Richmond in the spring of 1922. For six weeks, Sunday preached to scores of people in Richmond, “saving souls” and collecting donations from audiences. The Palladium, the city’s premiere newspaper, provided  a supplement section in its daily paper for Sunday to share his sermons, stories, and testimonials with the public. It is unclear as to why the Palladium decided to provide such expansive coverage; perhaps a publishing agreement between Sunday’s ministry and the newspaper facilitated the section. An insight into this arrangement might be gleamed from Sunday biographer Theodore Thomas Frankenberg:

Newspapers in any community, whether large or small, must necessarily pay attention to an enterprise which the business men of the town or city are backing to the extent of thousands and thousands of dollars. The element of publicity continues with increasing vigor to the very end of all campaigns, and one of the remarkable features in connection with it is the fact that this publicity is never sought by any direct or overt act — it comes naturally, almost spontaneously, and is easily the fourth factor toward preparing the field for the advent of the evangelist.

In any event, a half-page ad in the Palladium advertised Sunday’s revival and the paper’s forthcoming coverage. “The Palladium will publish a daily supplement giving two full pages of news and pictures regarding the meetings and the sermons in Richmond,” the ad stated. The paper also boasted of its team of reporters who would cover the revivals with a “direct telephone line . . . run from the Tabernacle to the Palladium office in order that there be no delay.” While Sunday’s preaching may have been “old time religion,” the Palladium’s supplement was a modern affair that anticipated the rise of twentieth century American protestant evangelicalism.

Richmond Palladium, April 13, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Richmond Palladium, April 18, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Palladium published its first supplement on April 17, 1922, right after Easter Sunday. Throughout its six-week run, the Billy Sunday supplement followed a predictable pattern. The first page would run a photo of Sunday, often with a quote. The first one, called “I’ve Got a Combative Nature,” quotes the preacher talking about his background in sports and its influence on his preaching. “I was graduated from five gymnasiums. I can go so fast for five rounds you can’t see me in the dust,” declared the Reverend Sunday. The right hand side carried his main sermon, which often focused on a specific topic. For the first issue, Sunday ruminated on what he believed was the “real essence of Christianity,” love:

I will admit that Christianity has fallen away beneath love as the original standard. Love is the dominant principle of the world; love can never be defeated. Love may be checked; love may be prevented for the time being, in accomplishing its aim, but love will drill a tunnel through all the mountains of opposition and reach the goal of a touchdown. Love—it’s the mightiest thing in the world! And the world is starving today for the manifestation of the love of God in the hearts of men and women.

Richmond Palladium, April 17, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

However, Christianity was more than just love to Billy Sunday. It also manifested itself in good works, particularly donations to the church, or in his case, to his revivals. In every supplement, an article or informational table would display the amount of money, in cash and pledges, Sunday’s ministry received for his sermons. The first day, the total collections were $859.71. This wasn’t good enough for the fiery evangelist. “I turned down 25 cities to come here, and it is not fair to me or to the other cities if you do not support me,” Sunday chided. As subsequent issues were published, the money totals and people “saved” became more explicit.

Richmond Palladium, April 18, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Palladium’s Billy Sunday supplement also shared with readers some of his best one liners or bits from his sermons. This was a smart move; Sunday was extremely quotable and articulate and would often do more with a sentence than other speakers could do in a paragraph. For example, in the April 18 issue, the Palladium published some of “Today’s Hot Epigrams from Billy Sunday’s Lips.” Here’s some of his best quotes from that issue:

*

I think that God is too busy to pay any attention to the fellow who is trying to lift himself by his own bootstraps.

*

This is not a world of chance. God don’t wind it up and then throw away the key and let her rip till she runs down. Nothing comes by chance.

*

Christianity is not a simply a creed. Christianity is a creed plus Jesus Christ.

*

Like with the first issue, a picture of Sunday, often in an animated preaching pose, accompanied the quotes. This gave readers a choice; either read the long-form sermons or check out their best bits and quotable lines. This provided Sunday with a wider readership than if he had just provided the sermons as a whole.

Richmond Palladium, April 19, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

One of Sunday’s indispensable lieutenants in his crusades for Christ was Robert Matthews, described by the Palladium as the “custodian of the tabernacle.” However, this was not his only job. Matthews served as Sunday’s secretary, a “buffer between the world and his boss,” as well as his “pianist for the chorus, understudy for Rody [Homer Rodeheaver] as the leader of the choir, and finally a good talker when he has to be.” A native of Kentucky, Matthews graduated from Lake Forest College, received musical education in “New York, Paris, Milan, and Melbourne,” and spent time in the newspaper business before joining Sunday’s staff. The Palladium described Matthews as “faithful to Billy,” further noting that “he is sure that Billy is the greatest man on the face of the earth.” Matthews, along with other staff, made sure that the Sunday revivals went perfectly.

Homer Rodeheaver, known as “Rody,” was Sunday’s musical director. Richmond Palladium, April 20, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The revivals benefited additionally from a well-organized schedule of prayer meetings, led by Florence Kinney, a graduate of Dr. Wilbert W. White’s Bible Training School in New York City and dedicated lieutenant to Sunday. Kinney believed that, “Souls can be saved and individuals converted in those neighborhoods, just as well as at the big tabernacle meetings.” Kinney and Reverend Alfred H. Backus organized Richmond into 10 sections, each with their own superintendent responsible for prayer meetings. Kinney herself taught Bible study classes during the week, scheduled “immediately after the afternoon sermon.” These individualized, personal meetings reinforced Sunday’s sermons, gained new converts, and emboldened the already converted. In this regard, Sunday’s bureaucratic approach echoed the modern evangelical enterprises of Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell decades later.

“Come Up to Help the Lord,” hand-written proclamation from Reverend Sunday. Richmond Palladium, April 21, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

In the supplement for April 21, the Palladium published a hand-written proclamation from Sunday, calling for evangelism in Richmond. “The history of the church is the history of revivals—the Church was born in the revival at Pentecost,” Sunday declared in his letter. He also summoned all of Richmond to join his revival. “I issue a proclamation,” Sunday wrote, “to the forces of truth, morality, righteousness in and out of the churches of Richmond ‘come up to the help of the Lord, against the and devil and all his hosts.” He signed it with his name and “Psalm 34,” which, among other verses, stated that “The Lord redeemeth the soul of his servants: and none of them that trust in him shall be desolate.” Sunday fervently believed that the message of Christianity would fail unless the people actively worked for the propagation of its message.

Billy Sunday’s tabernacle in Richmond, Indiana. Richmond Palladium, April 18, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

To hit home this message, the Palladium ran a small chart, starting in the April 19 supplement, chronicling the money raised and those “saved” at the daily services. Between the afternoon and evening services on April 21, the ministry collected $344 and preached to 4,900 attendees. However, by the weekend’s end, the collection ballooned to $3,183.36 and attendance expanded by 19,700 people. As an aside, the paper also noted that the “foregoing does not include pledges, which will swell the total.” The chart began including converts with the April 26 issue, where 119 “’hit the sawdust trail,’ the first converts of the Richmond campaign.” Within days, the paper named the converted as “trail hitters,” a term used throughout the rest of Sunday’s revival in Richmond. By the time Billy Sunday’s six weeks in Richmond came to a close, his ministry claimed 5,876 “tail hitters” and $34,658 in collections. Not too bad for an old baseball slugger turned champion for the Lord.

Richmond Palladium, April 26, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

However, Sunday was not without his controversies. He was openly against divorce, appearing in films, dancing, drinking alcohol, and the theory of evolution. With evolution, Sunday chided that, “If you believe your great, great granddaddy was a monkey, then you take your daddy and go to hell with him, but leave me out! I came from a different bunch, thank God.” He was also particularly bothered by divorce, saying “I shall never prostitute my manhood and high and honorable calling to unite in marriage a man or woman that has ever been divorced for any reason, as long as the man or woman from whom he or she is divorced is alive!” Sunday also railed against hypocrites within the ministry, stating, “I don’t like to see a minister who has one mannerism for the pulpit and another for the street.”

Richmond Palladium, May 3, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Yet, despite his calls for moral behavior and rejection of modern life, there was one group with which he was incautiously naive: the Ku Klux Klan. On May 14, 1922, 12 Klansmen in white robes approached the pulpit during Sunday’s evening service. They stood silent as they handed the reverend an envelope containing a “commendation and $50 in bills.” Sunday took the letter, merely replied “I thank you,” and said to the audience after they left, “I don’t know how you felt, but I commenced to check up on myself.” The Palladium reported that Sunday was “dumbfounded,” even though this was not his first encounter with the Klan. “The klan [sic] has made a present to Mr. Sunday in every city he has been in during the last year. . . . Even the Klan in Sioux City did the same thing,” Sunday confidant Robert Matthews told the press.

Richmond Palladium, May 15, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Muncie chapter and the provisional Richmond chapter of the Ku Klux Klan signed the letter commending Sunday for “the wonderful work that you and your associates are doing in [sic] behalf of perpetuating the tenets of the Christian Religion throughout the nation. . . .” The Palladium further noted that this was “the first time in the history of Richmond that the Ku Klux Klan had appeared. . . .” It also would not be their last time. According to historian Leonard Moore, 4,037 men from Wayne County, of which 3,183 were from Richmond, joined the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. Of Richmond’s 26,000 residents, over 12% belonged to the Klan during the decade. Sunday’s interaction with the Klan was not an aberration, but rather a sign of things to come.

As for the Reverend, he shrugged off the “dumbfounding” incident, declared that he did not belong to any secret fraternal organizations, and said that “if you behave yourself they won’t bother you.” In an odd turn, Sunday never readdressed the incident, but instead criticized the liberal wing of Baptist Christianity. “It’s the liberal bunch that don’t like me, and I don’t want their backing,” Sunday shared with his audience before he called for attendees to come forward to be saved.” Sunday’s apparent lack of moral clarity on the issue of the Klan does not imply an endorsement of its politics; it only demonstrates that Sunday was not aware of the implications of associating with them. Nevertheless, Sunday’s actions remain problematic.

Richmond Palladium, May 26, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Towards the end of his run, Billy Sunday’s crowds, collections, and the “saved” continued to grow. On May 25, over 600 members of the local Odd Fellows organization attended the evening service, pushing the audience to 5,200 people and past tabernacle capacity. The next day brought a record 2,000 people to the revival on a week day, the highest it had ever been. His final night of evangelizing brought to his ministry over $10,700 in donations, mostly from those in attendance but also from those unable to attend who donated earlier in the week. The Palladium covered Sunday’s final sermon and the start of his travel home to Winona Lake:

Billy Sunday’s residence at Winona Lake, Indiana, 1920. Indiana Memory.

About 1,500 saw Mr. Sunday off to his home at 10:20 o’clock Sunday evening. As the train started. Billy Sunday was shaking hands with a member of the crowd and was pulled off the steps to the platform. He managed to catch the steps of the end car as it passed and Richmond’s last sight of the evangelist was as he stood on the platform, waving goodbye.

During his six-week revival, Sunday gave 95 sermons in front of nearly 250,000 people, making him one of the biggest draws in the history of Richmond. He left the city a massive success.

Richmond Palladium, May 29, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

One of the biggest reasons for that success was the daily newspaper coverage he received in the Richmond Palladium. “The papers in this town have done better in covering this campaign from every angle than any other city have been to,” Sunday told the Palladium on his final day in Richmond. This is no exaggeration. The Palladium gave Sunday six weeks of uninterrupted newspaper coverage in a special supplemental section, a unique experiment in the newspaper’s near-200 year history. They printed his sermons almost verbatim, alongside other stories, quips, and updates on the prayer meetings and the amount of people “saved.” The Palladium‘s wall-to-wall coverage of Sunday’s revivals foreshadowed today’s network of newspapers, magazines, television stations, and internet media devoted to religious programming. Thus, the Palladium’s “Sunday Supplement” underscores the immense influence of Billy Sunday and evangelical Protestantism in the Midwest during the early 20th century.

To learn more about Billy Sunday, visit Chronicling America and Hoosier State Chronicles.

Richmond Palladium, May 9, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Portions of the introduction appeared in my thesis, Ingersoll, Infidels, and Indianapolis: Freethought and Religion in the Central Midwest.

New Batch Available!

Greetings chroniclers!

We have another new batch available for you at Chronicling America.

This batch contains issues from:

This batch adds 1166 issues (8,878 pages), growing Indiana’s total number of pages in Chronicling America to 288,102!

Have fun with all these new pages, and as always, happy searching!

This project has been assisted by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

New Issues Available!

Hello again Chroniclers!

Another batch of issues has been added to Hoosier State Chronicles!

Titles updated:

Richmond Palladium [Weekly], January 1831-June 1837.

Richmond Palladium [Daily], 1907-1910, April 1912-June 1912, October 1912-September 1913, and 1914-November 1915.

As always, happy searching!

This project has been assisted by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

More New Issues Available!

Fellow Chroniclers!

We’re back with new additions to Hoosier State Chronicles. Here are the new  issues and titles available to you.

Indianapolis Journal, January 2, 1888. From Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Journal, January 2, 1888. From Hoosier State Chronicles.

Indianapolis Journal

We have added issues from 1887-1888, bringing the total available issue count to 6,267 issues.

Richmond Daily Palladium, July 15, 1882. From Hoosier State Chronicles.
Richmond Daily Palladium, July 15, 1882. From Hoosier State Chronicles.

Richmond Palladium (Daily)

We have added issues from 1877-1898, giving you 1,211 total issues to check out.

Richmond Palladium (Weekly), April 21, 1865. From Hoosier State Chronicles.
Richmond Palladium (Weekly), April 21, 1865. From Hoosier State Chronicles. A common practice during the mid-nineteenth century, black lines around newspaper columns signified the death of a major political or social figure. In this issue’s case, it was the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

Richmond Palladium (Weekly)

This a whole new title available to you! It covers 1837-1890 and provides 1,260 issues.

Overall, this is an addition of nearly 10,000 news pages for you to explore! Hopefully this will keep you busy over the Thanksgiving weekend.

As always, happy searching!

 

New Issues Available!

richmond-palladium-feb-1916
Richmond Palladium, February 1, 1916, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Attention all chroniclers!

There are some new additions to Hoosier State Chronicles. The Richmond Daily Palladium, from 1916-1923, is now available, encompassing 1093 issues and over 10,000 pages!

richmond-palladium-feb-1923
Richmond Palladium, February 10, 1923, Hoosier State Chronicles.

From these issues, learn more about the Indiana’s impact on World War I and the early days of the roaring twenties. More issues will be added in the coming weeks.

As always, happy searching!

 

 

“Oh Boy! She’s Coming to Richmond”: Mamie Smith Brings the “Crazy Blues,” 1921

talking-machine-jan-1921
The Talking Machine World, January 15, 1921, 27, accessed archive.org.

Historians of blues music and folk culture consider Mamie Smith to be the first African American woman to record blues vocals.  In 1921, only a year after this historic recording, Smith performed to sold-out crowds in Indiana.  Newspapers covered the release of Smith’s records and her Indiana performances extensively. We were interested especially in a spring 1921 performance by this African-American star in Richmond, Indiana, a Ku Klux Klan stronghold at the time.

Before 1920, African American entertainer Mamie Smith, who was born in Cincinnati,  worked in Harlem as a chorus girl and cabaret singer. Here she met the black pianist, singer, and composer Perry Bradford who had found success in theater and minstrel circuits in New York.  Bradford, who was interested in preserving African-American musical traditions in recordings, convinced Fred Hager, recording director of the obscure label OKeh Records to take a chance on recording Mamie Smith.  Bradford convinced Hager that African American music lovers were an untapped market and that “they will buy records if recorded by one of their own, because we are the only folks that can sing and interpret hot jazz songs just off the griddle correctly.”

"A studio headshot portrait of American blues singer Mamie Smith," photograph, circa, 1923, Frank Driggs Collection/Getty Images accessed "Mamie Smith and the Birth of the Blues Market," All Things Considered, NPR, http://www.npr.org/2006/11/11/6473116/mamie-smith-and-the-birth-of-the-blues-market
“A studio headshot portrait of American blues singer Mamie Smith,” photograph, circa, 1923, Frank Driggs Collection/Getty Images accessed “Mamie Smith and the Birth of the Blues Market,” All Things Considered, NPR.

In February 1920, Smith recorded “That Thing Called Love” and “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down” for OKeh Records. Blues music historians consider this to be the first blues recording by an African American woman. Record producer Hager received boycott threats if he recorded Smith or any other African American singer. In the face of the controversy, Bradford convinced Hager to continue backing Smith, as opposed to the white singer Sophie Tucker, who Hager was alternatively considering.  Bradford recalled:

Mr. Hager got a far-off look in his eyes and seemed somewhat worried, because of the many threatening letters he had received from some Northern and Southern pressure groups warning him not to have any truck with colored girls in the recording field. If he did, OKeh Products – phonograph machines and records – would be boycotted. May God bless Mr. Hager, for despite the many threats, it took a man with plenty of nerves and guts to buck those powerful groups and make the historical decision which would echo aroun’ the world. He pried open that old ‘prejudiced door’ for the first colored girl, Mamie Smith, so she could squeeze into the large horn – and shout with her strong contralto voice.

Smith recorded another set of songs penned by Bradford for Okeh in August of 1920. The track “Crazy Blues” became massively popular and in less than a year the record sold over a million copies. According to long-time music writer Jas Obercht, Smith’s “Crazy Blues” “could be heard coming from the open windows of virtually any black neighborhood in America.” Okeh Records called it “a surprise smash hit.” According to New Orleans jazz musician Danny Barker:

There was a great appeal amongst black people and whites who loved this blues business to buy records and buy phonographs.  Every family had a phonograph in their house, specifically behind Mamie Smith’s first record.

Image of "Crazy Blues" on OKey Records accessed: Jas Obrecht, "Mamie Smith: The First Lady of the Blues," http://jasobrecht.com/mamie-smith-the-first-lady-of-the-blues/
Image of “Crazy Blues” on OKey Records accessed: Jas Obrecht, “Mamie Smith: The First Lady of the Blues,”

This was certainly true in Indiana.

Indiana newspapers ran ads for Mamie Smith’s records not long after the release of “Crazy Blues.”  Often the ads for Smith’s records were also attempts to sell phonographs as Barker mentioned in the above quote. A downtown Indianapolis music store ran this advertisement in the Indianapolis News in November:

Indianapolis News, November 30, 1920, 16, Hoosier State Chronicles
Indianapolis News, November 30, 1920, 16, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The C. W. Copp Music Shop ran an advertisement in the South Bend News-Times in December for the hit “Crazy Blues,” but also let an interested public know that they stocked other Mamie Smith records. Hoosier interest in Smith’s records continued into the new year.  In March of 1921, the same South Bend music shop ran several advertisements for five new Smith records and the Hammond Times ran an advertisement for Okeh Records releases, featuring Smith, and to sell listeners the phonograph  to play them on:

Hammond Times, March 4, 1921, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles
Hammond Times, March 4, 1921, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles.

According to Obrecht, Mamie Smith recorded 22 songs this year and “between sessions, she kept a grueling schedule of concert appearances.” The Talking Machine World magazine reported that Smith and a revue of entertainers were going to perform in all the major U.S. cities. By April 1921, many Hoosier music fans were familiar with Mamie Smith, as we can see from the newspaper ads.  So when the news broke that she was booked to play in Indiana, the coverage continued almost daily until the performance.

According to the Talking Machine World she performed in Indianapolis and Evansville on this tour, but a search of Hoosier State Chronicles and our recent work to digitize the Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram shows that she also performed to sold out crowds in Richmond and South Bend. This is especially interesting considering 1920s Richmond was only about 5% African American, while perhaps as many as 45% of white males belonged at some point to Whitewater Klan #60, an active chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. We wondered, what brought Smith to Richmond and how was she received?

The Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram ran a notice of Smith’s Saturday, April 23, 1921 performance at the Coliseum for weeks before the date.  Here are some great examples:

Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, April 18, 1921, 7.
Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, April 18, 1921. Hoosier State Chronicles.

And:

Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, April 19, 1921, 7.
Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, April 19, 1921. Hoosier State Chronicles.

On April 21, 1921 alone there were three ads for Smith’s upcoming performance and records, including this extensive listing of popular songs:

Richmond Palladium and Sun Telegram, April 21, 1921, 3.
Richmond Palladium and Sun Telegram, April 21, 1921. Hoosier State Chronicles.
"Famous Colored Star Sings Here Saturday," Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, April 18, 1921. 9
“Famous Colored Star Sings Here Saturday,” Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, April 18, 1921. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Advertisements were not the only coverage of Smith’s upcoming appearance in Richmond. On April 18, 1921 the Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram reported on the “forthcoming appearance here of Mamie Smith, the popular phonograph star of the colored race, and her All-Star Jazz Revue next Saturday night at the Coliseum,” and called it “the greatest jazz concert that has ever been sent on tour.” The newspaper called Smith “a phonograph star of the first rank” and claimed that she “has done more than any other singer perhaps in America to popularize the genuine ‘blues’ song of the day.” The writer continued to laud Smith for her ability to make songs into “living, potent things charged with a pulsing and individual rhythm.” The paper reported that the popularity of her record had made Richmond residents excited to see her perform live and that they were expecting a “sold-out house when she reaches this city.”

Jazz Revue Seats On Sale Wednesday," Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, April 18, 1921, 4.
Jazz Revue Seats On Sale Wednesday,” Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, April 18, 1921. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Perhaps the most interesting article in the Palladium was the one that appeared the following day, April 19, and covered not Smith but the revue company traveling with her. Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds were the headlining, crowd-drawing act, but her tour included other acts as well: dancers, vaudevillian comedians, and minstrel performers. The appearance of a newly-minted  blues and jazz star on the same stage as the historically popular minstrel performers marks and intersection of trends in African American music and performance history. While minstrel performers had both conformed to stereotypes out of employment necessity and defied them through their self-presentation (learn more), Mamie Smith’s rise to stardom ushered in a new era of music divas who presented themselves as upper class, educated, rich, and demanding of respect.

Obrecht writes:

While blues music had been performed in the American South since the very beginning of the twentieth century, no one had made recordings of it before, largely due to racism and the assumption that African-Americans couldn’t – or wouldn’t – buy record players or 78s. “Crazy Blues” changed all that, sparking a mad scramble among record execs to record blues divas. The stars they promoted in this short-lived era of “classic blues” were not the down-home country singers who’d record later in the Roaring Twenties, but the glittering, glamorous, and savvy veterans of tent shows, minstrel troupes, and the vaudeville stage. These mavericks defied stereotypes…

"Colored Star Wears Exprensive Creations," Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, April 22, 1921, 11.
“Colored Star Wears Exprensive Creations,” Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, April 22, 1921. Hoosier State Chronicles.

As if in response to this very idea, on April 22 the Palladium followed the coverage of the revue with an article detailing the glamorous appearance and presentation of Smith. The newspaper stated that through her record royalties “the popular young colored star is enabled to indulge her fancy in the latest creations both from Paris and New York, and in each city in which she has appeared a gasp of astonishment has greeted her every appearance, for her gowns are described as riots of color and beauty.”

In a telling sentence, the article called Smith “one of the most gorgeously dressed stars of the musical comedy world.”  This notes both the respect for her appearance and success and a misunderstanding of her role in music history.  While African American music fans were connecting to Smith’s sincere and authentic portrayal of the blues music that they grew up with, this white Midwestern newspaper still saw her as part of the vaudeville and perhaps even minstrel genres — understandably perhaps since it was marketed as such.  While Smith had come from such a tradition, through her work with the blues and and jazz performers she had transcended her past.  Black newspapers understood her importance much earlier than white newspapers.  On March 13, 1920, the Chicago Defender wrote:

Well, you’ve all heard the famous stars of the white race chirping their stuff on the different makes of phonograph records . . . but we have never – up to now – been able to hear one of our own ladies deliver the canned goods. Now we have the pleasure of being able to say that at last they have recognized the fact that we are here for their service; the OKeh Phonograph Company has initiated the idea by engaging the handsome, popular and capable vocalist, Mamie Gardner Smith.

Similarly, the African American gospel, jazz, and blues music Thomas A. Dorsey explained, “Colored singing and playing artists are riding to fame and fortune with the current popular demand for ‘blues’ disk recordings and because of the recognized fact that only a Negro can do justice to the native indigo ditties such artists are in demand.”

There were African American audience members at the Richmond performance, who likely had a better understanding of the significance of Smith’s success.  The Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram reported: “The best seats are selling fast from the plat at Weisbrod Music company as white and colored folk alike are wager to see and hear the ‘Queen of the Blues,’ a capacity house is predicted for Saturday night.”

Unfortunately, there are no extant issues of the historic African American newspaper the Indianapolis Recorder for this period. It would be interesting to explore the differences in the coverage of Smith’s performances between a white and black newspaper and perhaps this could be accomplished using the Chicago Defender, but is outside the scope of this post.

As expected, Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds sold-out the Richmond Coliseum, which held 2,500 people, for the April 23, 1921 performance.  The next year, the KKK also sold-out the same venue.  The Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram reported on December 12, 1922 that a crowd awaiting a Klan rally “taxed the space at the Coliseum waiting for the ceremonies quite a long time before the Klansmen finally arrived.”  So how was the white population of Richmond able to enjoy an African American musician one year and then attend a Klan rally the next?

While this contradiction may seem surprising, there was (and some argue still is) a tendency for white Americans to de-contextualize African American music from African American culture.  That is, the white residents of Richmond were able to appreciate black music while continuing to oppress black people.  There has been much written on this topic (two good places to start are Imamu Amiri Baraka‘s The Music: reflections on Jazz and Blues and Perry Hall’s “African American Music: Dynamics of Appropriation and Innovation“) and an extensive analysis of Smith’s career through this lens is outside the scope of this post.  However, advertisements continued after her performance, from which we can draw that she was a hit regardless of why.  Notice the advertisement claims that there was “a capacity audience.”

Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, April 25, 1921, 5
Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, April 25, 1921. Hoosier State Chronicles.

While we were unable to find an article reviewing the Richmond performance or the crowd’s reception, it likely went well because she returned to Indiana the next month.  On May 31, 1921, she performed to another capacity crowd at the Oliver Theater in South Bend.  The South Bend News-Times covered her performance in much the same manner as the Richmond Palladium.  The paper noted in various articles, her fame, her genius, and her status as “the first colored girl artist to attain world-wide fame as a singer and phonograph record star.”

Mamie Smith’s importance to music history is hard to overstate, according to a story on NPR’s All Things Considered for which famed activist Angela Davis (now a professor at University of California/Santa Cruz ) was interviewed.  Davis summed up Smith’s importance succinctly:

“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.”

Search Hoosier State Chronicles for yourself to find more on Mamie Smith in Indiana. For more on Mamie Smith’s long career see Jas Orbrecht’s well-researched article, “Mamie Smith: The First Lady of the Blues.”