USA’s first illustrated black paper, The Indianapolis Freeman
Any idea when the word “blues” first appeared in
print as a description for African-American music? It wasn’t until as late as 1910, would
you believe, according to the American academics, Lyn Abbott and Doug Seroff,
who discovered the term in The Indianapolis Freeman of 10 April 1910.
The noted African-American weekly newspaper was
reviewing the ventriloquist act of a young black Memphis vaudevillian, John W.
F. ‘Johnnie’ Woods, who was touring the southern states with a review called
the Plant Juice Medicine Company. Just 22, Woods was employed as a “Buck and
back end wing dancer, female impersonator and ventriloquist”. Buck and wing
dancing was demonstrated by minstrel performers – black and white – from about
1840 onwards and later incorporated into vaudeville. You might be interested to
hear that the term “buck” for a Negro originated in the seventeenth century in
the West Indies, from the term “po-bockorau” which meant buccaneer or

Slaves in the Carolinas called poor Irish “po’ bucks” and the Irish jig
subsequently became the buck dance 

sailor. Slaves in the Carolinas shortened this to “po buck” to describe the
poor Irish immigrants who were arriving, and subsequently renamed the Irish jig the buck dance.

When the versatile Johnnie Woods had completed his
duties as a medicine show drag queen and buck dancer, he took to the stage as the ventriloquist,
Professor Woods, with his dummy, Henry, whom he would pretend to get drunk. It
was a review of Woods’ and Henry’s act in Jacksonville, Florida, on 10 April
1910, that the Freeman described how Woods, “uses the ‘blues’ for little Henry
in this drunken act.”
Medicine shows like this often featured musical acts
Three months later, the Freeman used the term “blues” again when
reporting, in its edition of 16 July 1910, how a certain “Mr. Kid Love is
cleaning up with his ‘Easton Blues’ on the piano. He is a cat on the piano.”
This was 40 years before the beat-era term “cat” was supposed to have emerged in
the 1950s. Who Kid Love was, there’s now no trace, but two years later, his
chitlin’ circus contemporary, H. Franklin ‘Baby’ F. Seals, released
the first blues published by an African American and the first blues with
vocals ever published. This was “Baby Seals’ Blues” released in August 1912,
generally considered the second blues sheet music published after Hart Wand’s
“Dallas Blues” in March 1912. (For full lyrics, see my ‘Mixed Musical Duos and
First Blues Vocals Ever Published’ post of 6 Nov 2013.)
Better still, why not invest in my “How
Blues Evolved” books complete with hundreds of fascinating old blues  photographs. (The history’s split into two volumes to accommodate all the picture files.) Invest in both volumes of “How Blues Evolved” to find out all there is to know about the evolution of blues for less than the price of a drink and a sandwich.
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