Feb 8, 2017

"I Got the Blues" (1908), the first published blues

Here's the original sheet music for the first published "blues" tune - that is, the first published music that 1) had "blues" in the title, and 2) used what we now call a 12-bar blues progression, and 3) had blue notes (i.e, b3) in the melody. I found it online at the Tulane University library.

Some things to note:

  • many b3-to-3 blue note licks in the melody
  • G7 chord (V of IV) in bar 4 of the first repeated section - this became a basic feature of blues
  • C#dim7 chord (#IVdim7) in bar 6 - this too became a standard harmonic feature in many later blues
  • rhythmically and structurally a rag, but with a 12-bar blues progression in the first section, and a 12-bar "minor blues" in the second section

Here's a nice, straight reading of the sheet music by Marco Fumo:

In his book Creating Jazz Counterpoint, Vic Hobson quotes a 1955 article by the composer, Anthony Maggio, a "classically trained musician of Sicilian descent." Maggio writes about how he came to write the tune, in 1907:
I took the ferry boat from New Orleans across the Mississippi to Algiers. On my way up the levee, I heard an elderly negro with a guitar playing three notes for a long time. I didn't think anything with only three notes could have a title so to satisfy my curiosity I asked him what was the name of the piece. He replied, "I got the blues."
Hobson comments, "...why the elderly guitarist on the levee in Algiers chose to call the tune "I Got the Blues," we are not told. It may have been just a reference to his own state of mind, or it may have related in some way to "I've Got De Blues" (1901), the first major hit for the African American vaudeville entertainers Chris Smith and Elmer Bowman." [Smith and Bowman's tune, however, was not what we would call a blues.]

Maggio continues,
I went home. Having this on my mind, I wrote "I Got the Blues," making the three notes dominating most of the time. That same night, our five-piece orchestra played at the Fabaker Restaurant (in New Orleans) "I Got the Blues" which was composed with the purpose of a musical caricature, and to my astonishment became our most popular request number. 
During this time people asked me for copies, but I had only my manuscript. I had no intention of publishing it because my interest in music was entirely classical. However, the people's demand by now was so overwhelming that our first violinist, Barzin (later to play first violin with Toscanini, at the Met) persisted until I finally consented to publish 1000 copies for piano, 500 for band and 500 for orchestra...This took place in 1908. The copies were sold in a very short time. I wasn't interested in another edition for the reason already explained.
The chord progression was not original with Maggio; similar 12-bar harmonic sequences had been used before in "Just Because She Made Them Goo-Goo Eyes," a 1900 hit tune by Hughie Cannon, and also in other tunes by Cannon. Similar 12-bar progressions had been used even earlier in the folk tunes "Stagolee," "Frankie and Johnny," and "The Ballad of the Boll Weevil."

The early history of blues is hazy; it's not clear if 12-bar tunes specifically called "blues" were being played in New Orleans or in rural areas previous to this. Certainly the 12-bar sequence was being played, and certainly blue notes (b3, b7) were a common feature of Southern popular music. "I Got the Blues" represents the first time that these elements came together in published form, under the title "blues."

Some other posts on early blues:

Early Blues, blue notes, and blues scales
"St. Louis Blues" and other early published blues

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