Martha Copeland, 20s-era blues singer
October 26, 2008 5:06 AM   Subscribe

Though Bessie Smith is regarded as the queen of the early blues singers, Martha Copeland was singing the blues and its variants (and doing a fine job of it) back in the 20s as well. Head over to Internet Archive to hear Martha sing her versions of two of the tunes that made Bessie so famous: I Ain't Got Nobody and St. Louis Blues, the latter with backing vocal chorus from the Hall Johnson Choir. Check out her Dying Crap Shooter's Blues and Sorrow Valley Blues. And there's plenty of Martha Copeland goodness for your ears (RealPlayer) here and here.

I've only been able to find one photograph of Martha Copeland: it graces the jacket of this Document Records release.

The Internet Archive links to "I Ain't Got Nobody" and "St. Louis Blues" in this post are originally from a radio show, year 1928, which you can hear at the 20 minute point of this WFMU "Thomas Edison's Attic" broadcast of The Eveready Hour.

From the excellent Honey Where You Been So Long ( "Martha Copeland was a highly successful artist, whose talents were mismanged and wasted by Columbia. Copeland’s wonderful voice was often used to record substandard sides and copies of current hits by Bessie Smith and others rather than promoting her own work. Copeland became famous - but never of the level that her talent would have allowed. Copeland’s body of work is also lessened by the choices others made for her, but on her stand out tracks you can see how much talent and skill she possessed."

Meanwhile, here's more great Bessie Smith for your listening pleasure: Gimme a Pigfoot, Yellowdog Blues, Mountaintop Blues, Downhearted Blues and A Good Man is Hard To Find.
posted by flapjax at midnite (9 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Awesome, thanks for these goodies! I can't wait to go through them later.

Now if someone did Victoria Spivey and Ma Rainey and Lucille Bogan FPPs, I'd be in seventh heaven.
posted by Lou Stuells at 5:36 AM on October 26, 2008

I'm hit and miss with 20's and 30's blues singers (usually I like hearing what they sound like in a historical context, but never enough to listen more than once), but that "Dying Crap Shooter's Blues" is freaking awesome. That is EXACTLY what I think of when I think of an early female blues singer.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 6:53 AM on October 26, 2008

"Dying Crap Shooter's Blues" is not so much blues as a popular song drenched in draggy minor sevenths -- and example of that 20s and 30s subgenre, possibly sprung from "St. James Infirmary", that included Duke Ellington's "jungle music" phase, and brought us "Minnie the Moocher", "Blues in the Night", and reached its apotheosis in "Porgy and Bess". Having nothing to do with folk blues, it was (I suspect) popular because it sound dark, dangerous and sexual (all that slow, draggy negritude was terribly exiting to a sexually repressed generation). "Dying Crap Shooter" is not "blues" as we 1960s blues-a-roonies came to know it: a 1-4-5 progression based on three lines of lyrics, the second being a repeat of the first, with an optional chorus. The 1-4-5 "folk" blues pattern, seeped through the underground in the early part of the 20th century, and swamped the world in the 1960s and 70s until we were all pretty much sick to death of it. Much of the pleasure of traditional 1-4-5 blues is plain old pattern recognition: we're grateful that one blues song is pretty much like another. But "Dying Crap Shooters Blues", like Harold Arlen's brilliant "Blues in the Night", pretty much goes it own, slow way in an unpredictable way, making it a pure product of tin-pan-alley innovation.
posted by Faze at 8:04 AM on October 26, 2008

here she is on a "music video"
posted by Postroad at 8:56 AM on October 26, 2008

and here is Martha copeland in a rare video
posted by Postroad at 9:14 AM on October 26, 2008

"Dying Crap Shooter's Blues" is not so much blues as a popular song drenched in draggy minor sevenths...

Very true, Faze. That's why I wrote, in the FPP, "blues and its variants". Thanks for your informed comment as to the specifics.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 2:57 PM on October 26, 2008

Um, postroad, you might wanna check the FPP before you post. Both of your YT links are part of my FPP!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 2:59 PM on October 26, 2008

If anyone wants to start a Martha Copeland vs. Bessie Smith fight, I'll take Ms. Smith's side, any day. Ms. Copeland was well enough in her way, but Ms. Smith was an oceanic talent. One can only imagine what she could have done with wider opportunities.
posted by Faze at 3:24 PM on October 26, 2008

Faze: Bessie Smith was a singer on a whole other level than Martha Copeland, for sure. Still, I think it's good to sample different voices from that (or any) era. A bit of variety is always a good thing, I think.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:35 PM on October 26, 2008

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