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Boom's Blues: Music, Journalism, and Friendship in Wartime

Boom's Blues: Music, Journalism, and Friendship in Wartime

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Boom's Blues: Music, Journalism, and Friendship in Wartime

537 pagine
6 ore
May 9, 2017


Boom's Blues stands as both a remarkable biography of J. Frank G. Boom (1920–1953) and a recovery of his incredible contribution to blues scholarship originally titled The Blues: Satirical Songs of the North American Negro. Wim Verbei tells how and when the Netherlands was introduced to African American blues music and describes the equally dramatic and peculiar friendship that existed between Boom and jazz critic and musicologist Will Gilbert, who worked for the Kultuurkamer during World War II and had been charged with the task of formulating the Nazi's Jazzverbod, the decree prohibiting the public performance of jazz. Boom's Blues ends with the annotated and complete text of Boom's The Blues, providing the international world at last with an English version of the first book-length study of the blues.

At the end of the 1960s, a series of thirteen blues paperbacks edited by Paul Oliver for the London publisher November Books began appearing. One manuscript landed on his desk that had been written in 1943 by a then twenty-three-year-old Amsterdammer, Frank (Frans) Boom. Its publication, to which Oliver gave the title Laughing to Keep from Crying, was announced on the back jacket of the last three Blues Paperbacks in 1971 and 1972. Yet it never was published and the manuscript once more disappeared. In October 1996, Dutch blues expert and publicist Verbei went in search of the presumably lost manuscript and the story behind its author. It only took him a couple of months to track down the manuscript, but it took another ten years to glean the full story behind the extraordinary Frans Boom, who passed away in 1953 in Indonesia.
May 9, 2017

Informazioni sull'autore

Wim Verbei has been active in blues music circles for several decades. He was editor-in-chief of Mr. Blues, the first Dutch-language magazine about blues, and longtime editor of the prominent Dutch music magazine Oor (Ear). He has been producing a series of articles for the quarterly Block Magazine called “de Bluesbibliotheek” (“The Blues Library”), the bibliography and critical review of every book ever written on blues music.

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Anteprima del libro

Boom's Blues - Wim Verbei



David Evans, General Editor

Barry Jean Ancelet

Edward A. Berlin

Joyce J. Bolden

Rob Bowman

Susan C. Cook

Curtis Ellison

William Ferris

John Edward Hasse

Kip Lornell

Bill Malone

Eddie S. Meadows

Manuel H. Peña

Wayne D. Shirley

Robert Walser





dutch foundation

for literature

The publisher gratefully acknowledges the support of the Dutch Foundation for Literature.

The University Press of Mississippi is a member of the Association of American University Presses.

Boom’s Blues

Muziek, journalistiek en vriendschap in oorlogstijd

copyright © 2011 Wim Verbei

Originally published by Uitgeverij In de Knipscheer, Haarlem

English translation copyright © 2017 by University Press of Mississippi

All rights reserved

Manufactured in the United States of America

First printing 2017

Translated by Scott Rollins

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data available

British Library Cataloging-in-Publication Data available


An Introductory Word

Foreword to the American Edition

A Word of Thanks

The Big Bang and Real Jazz

Slang for Snakes

The Blues Scoop

Shifting Perspectives

Irrevocable Step

Nothing but the Blues and Statistics

Matters of Principle

Dreadfully Purged

Pure Friendship



Selective Bibliography 1876–1950

Sources and Base Material

Justification and Explanatory Notes on The Blues

Index of Names, Artists, Subjects, and Songs

About the Author


Satirical Songs of the North American Negro

by J. Frank G. Boom


Origin, History, and Character of the Blues

Analysis of the Different Types of Lyrics

Tradition in Blues Lyrics

Satire and Self-Satire



Song Index and Discography

Boom’s Blues CD (included the Dutch Edition)


In 1992 Tony Russell published the fifth volume of the series Famous Desk-drawer Manuscripts in the English blues and jazz magazine Juke Blues (vol. 25). The series was a kind of ode to and at the same time the final resting place for manuscripts on blues and jazz that had disappeared, been lost, or never finished. The book for which he sounded the death knell at that time and place bore the title Laughing to Keep from Crying. The author of that piece of work was listed as one Frank Boom.

Unless by some near-miracle a copy of this manuscript should turn up again, this is a book we shall never read, Russell sighed at the end of his account. He sincerely hoped that miracle would occur. The book that we would be deprived of ever being able to read without divine intervention was, in his judgment, by a long way the first book-length study of the blues. According to Russell, that study was—a remarkable part of the story—written during World War II: indeed, during the German occupation of Holland. The manuscript survived the war and landed on Paul Oliver’s desk thirty years later at the beginning of the nineteen seventies.

Oliver, at the time already a seasoned blues researcher, was compiling a series of monographs about mainly country blues artists and specific blues genres, the so-called Blues Paperbacks for the London publisher November Books. Evidently, Oliver felt that Frank Boom’s book was of sufficient quality to warrant publication in that series. In any case, the publication (in 1971/72) of Laughing to Keep from Crying was announced as a forthcoming title on the back flap of the last three Blues Paperbacks (of the thirteen titles that were ultimately published).

At the outset of the seventies I myself was up to my ears in the blues, and had been for well over a decade,¹ via a simple route from the Dutch hit Willem Word Wakker (Wake Up Willem!) by the duo the Butterflies from the city of Amersfoort, to Wake Up Little Susie by the Everly Brothers and A Big Hunk O’Love by Elvis Presley; quite soon after that Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley, to subsequently to plunge back in time via the Rolling Stones with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf to Robert Johnson and Charley Patton. And Bob Dylan, for at least the first two albums, was still up to snuff.

The article in the journal Juke Blues 25, 1992

At the time I set up the (Holland) Blues Festivals, as well as the first and only Blues Teach-In (1967)—with a panel that included Prof. Dr. H. R. Rookmaaker, Peter Schröder, editor of Hitweek, and Arend Jan Heerma van Voss, editor of Jazzwereld—and founded the first Dutch blues magazine Mr. Blues, together with kindred spirits in music that included Leo Bruin, who would later become the director of the Dutch blues record company Swingmaster. We also wrote pieces in Hitweek (Oh … Annie Mae) and in Jazzwereld (about new guitar heroes such as B.B., Albert, and Freddie King, but also about the whopper Big Joe Williams). In 1971 we merged our own beautiful blues mag (circulation of something like 1,346) with the new Dutch music magazine Muziekkrant Oor mainly in order to free myself from stenciling and (later) offset printing duties.

Back in those years we noticed in passing the Blues Paperbacks edited by Paul Oliver, and we even read parts of some of them. The fact that on the back flaps there was a blurb about the forthcoming book by the Amsterdammer Frank Boom really did grab our attention, but what were we supposed to do with that? The latest albums by Jimmy Dawkins, Taj Mahal or Son House (those were the kind of records being released back then …) had to be reviewed! In short, there was no time at that moment, no urgent reason, and especially no motivation to plunge back into time, into World War II, into Frank Boom and his by a long way first book-length study of the blues.

They (especially Calvinists, in my opinion) say repentance always comes too late. But hey, I was born and raised in the southern Netherlands and darted through life living following the principle of: don’t cross your bridges until you come to them. If only I had had the good sense of phoning Hans Rookmaaker, during or after the Blues Teach-In in 1967, which at the time would have been possible, but also with the publication of the Blues Paperbacks in 1971! My quest to find out who Frank Boom was and what his book entailed, probably wouldn’t have lasted a decade.

Tony Russell, from 1971 to 1973 house editor of November Books,² the publishing house of Paul Oliver’s Blues Paperbacks series, noted about Frank Boom’s book in 1992 that nothing short of a sort of miracle would make it possible for us to be able to read the book. Because twenty years after having had it in his hands, he had to conclude it had vanished: Irretrievable.

In October 1996, four years after this item was published, I was sent Russell’s story by the ever industrious Dutch jazz chronicler Jan Mulder.³ At the time I was working on a blues bibliography,⁴ and any bibliographer worth his salt, in Mulder’s opinion, would not only know a great deal, if not everything, about books that had been published but also about books that had been written but never published. Being a journalist, it is true I did not share Mulder’s view of what the profession bibliographer entailed, but it did intrigue me. Because what do you mean, irretrievable?

In a search that lasted no longer than two months, I looked for and found the so-called unfindable manuscript by Frank (Frans, as he was usually called) Boom. First I located the English-language version that was sent to November Books, or in that case Paul Oliver, but quite soon afterwards there was a great deal more material: the very first draft version of the manuscript scrawled by hand in Dutch; Boom’s original plan of work; letters from Boom to Will Gilbert and vice versa; sketched portraits of Boom made by his friend, the painter and first Dutch blues collector Eugène Brands; a cassette tape—truly a miracle—with a radio talk by Boom in 1947; diary entries by the Dutch novelist Ina Boudier-Bakker with salient details about the Boom family, photographs, and even more drawings, and more.

The bigger the pile of material became, the more questions arose. In order to be able to answer them some kind of order had to made out of the (small) history of the blues in the Netherlands. How and when did the Netherlands become acquainted with African American blues music? When and why did the blues achieve a certain measure of popularity here? What kind of blues literature existed before Frank Boom embarked on his study? Was his manuscript really by a long way the first book-length study of the blues? And of course: why was his manuscript never published at that time and not even at a later date?

A battery of new questions arose, especially as a result of that last question. Why did Frans Boom seek help while writing the manuscript and why of all people with the freelance jazz critic/musicologist Will Gilbert? What kind of chemistry existed between them? Didn’t Boom know that Gilbert was working for the Kultuurkamer, an institute set up by the German occupier? Why didn’t he break his pact with Gilbert when Gilbert formulated the articles of the Jazzverbod (Ban on Jazz)? Why did Gilbert actually write that Jazzverbod in the first place? Was Gilbert a Nazi? Was Frans Boom, on the other hand, a good guy? And ultimately, did the question of whether someone had collaborated or resisted during World War II play a role in the manuscript not being published after the war?

Announcement for Laughing to Keep from Crying on the back cover of one of the Blues Paperbacks, 1971-’72

I have endeavored to answer most of these questions in the following documentary about music journalism, World War II, scholarship at work, and naturally the blues themselves. As such, Boom’s Blues is a posthumous homage to Frans Boom who, under bizarre circumstances, wrote the world’s first book-length study on the blues. At the same time a more nuanced portrait came into view of the music publicist Will Gilbert, who had been severely criticized for several decades.

The CD that goes with the Dutch edition of Boom’s Blues contains songs that were part of Frans Boom’s collection and which he incorporated into his manuscript. My slightly edited version of the manuscript The Blues—Satirical Songs of the North American Negro, is the last part of this diptych.

I hope that Frans Boom would approve.

Wim Verbei



Seventy-five years after the young art history student Frans Boom produced the first version of his blues manuscript in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, his ambitious project has finally been accomplished with the publication of this American edition. Boom was already convinced in 1941 that his piece of work one day would have to be published in the English language, and from the moment I began working on the reconstruction of his manuscript, his restless spirit was continually prodding me in the back of my mind.

Frans Boom was a dedicated blues devotee and a conscientious researcher. Even though he had less than four hundred 78 RPM records and only a handful of books at his disposal, he was intent on producing a sound piece of scholarly work. At the same time he was aware of the limits of his sources and the limitations of his knowledge. In his own introduction he describes his project as a study of the blues that we do not consider to be complete in any way, but rather a beginning, a provisional study he hoped might stimulate the study of this interesting subject.

I suspect that it would have come as a surprise to him that it would take another two decades after he had completed his own manuscript before the first serious general studies of the history and lyrics of blues songs would be published. The Country Blues, in which Samuel Charters—as he contends in the introduction to the 1975 reprinted edition—attempted to impress upon white America the kind of injustice that had been done to black America, appeared in 1959. A year later the less emotive Blues Fell This Morning, a.k.a. The Meaning of the Blues, followed, by the Englishman Paul Oliver, who demonstrated how sociological and psychological factors were transposed and translated by blues artists into their lyrics, based on the analysis of 350 traditional blues songs. And in 1963 Samuel Charters followed that up with The Poetry of the Blues, a sometimes lyrical song of praise to the poetic power and beauty of blues lyrics.

The folk revival of the 1960s inspired the revaluation of earlier country blues and countless field trips in search of living legends. As a result, a number of studies appeared that were based on the field research undertaken, such as Harry Oster’s 1969 Living Country Blues, with an analysis of songs he had recorded in Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola at the end of the 1950s by such then unknown musicians as Robert Pete Williams, Guitar Welch, Butch Cage, Leon Strickland, and Willie B. Thomas; or Blues from the Delta (1970/78), inspired by the field trips made by William Ferris Jr. between 1967 and 1978, in which he described the development of the music and lyrics of musicians still active at the time in the Mississippi Delta, such as James Son Thomas, Lee Kizart, and Arthur Lee Williams. And the trips made by David Evans in Mississippi from the mid-sixties to early seventies, in search of the roots of Tommy Johnson, resulted not only in a number of (re)discoveries—such as of Isaac and Arzo Youngblood, Mager Johnson, and Houston Stackhouse—but also in Big Road Blues (1982), with an analysis of the facets that influenced the lyrics and repertoire of (delta) blues musicians.

Quite a few 78 RPM records of prewar country blues began to be reissued beginning in the sixties and seventies, at first on long-playing albums (on the labels Origin, Yazoo, Roots, etc.) and later on CDs (Document and the like), enabling scholars to avail themselves of a growing amount of source material with which to conduct research from several different perspectives. Thus, Jeff Todd Titon in Early Downhome Blues (1977) took an ethnomusicological approach to some eighty prewar blues numbers. William Barlow in Looking Up at Down (1989) looked upon song lyrics as a strategic means (of protest) for African Americans to arm themselves against and resist white oppression. Michael Taft attempted with the aid of computer techniques in The Blues Lyric Formula (2006) to come up with an analysis of semantic units (formulas) in blues lyrics.

Specific subjects, striking themes, or related song types also underwent analysis. There is now a study of the music and lyrics of black songsters, preachers, and evangelists from 1920–33 (Songsters and Saints by Paul Oliver, 1984); there are textual analysis of work songs (Wake Up Dead Man by Bruce Jackson, 1972), spirituals (The Spirituals and the Blues by James H. Cone, 1972), train songs (What’s the Use of Walking by Paul Garon and Gene Tomko, 2006), and of songs with a dash of political overtones (Roosevelt’s Blues et seq. by Guido van Rijn, 1997). In short, there are now textual analyses of all sizes and shapes; but none of them have been written from the idea that is central to the forerunner to all these publications, namely Frank Boom’s study The Blues: Satirical Songs of the North American Negro.

The central idea behind Boom’s dissertation is namely that blues songs are satirical by their very nature and origin. Not only is this starting premise original, several of Boom’s other findings are also innovative for the era in which they were formulated—and some of them in fact still are: the description of the relationship between male and female blues; or the idea that the development of the form, the structure, of the genre is coupled to the development of the contents of the lyrics, i.e., from sad to increasingly satirical. And even after Boom’s study the satirical character of the blues has still seldom been a topic of study or discussion subsequent to Boom’s study. Exceptions are Paul Oliver, who in his collection Screening the Blues (1968)—in the chapter Preaching the Blues—devotes attention to the satirical attitude of blues with regard to religion and preachers; and Paul Garon, who in Blues and the Poetic Spirit (1975) studies blues lyrics from a surrealistic perspective, giving examples of what he calls the most eloquent and powerful essence of the blues: humor.

It naturally goes without saying that Boom’s seventy-five-year-old manuscript cannot be completely free of flaws. His pursuit of producing a sound piece of scholarly work was hindered by difficult circumstances and the limitation of his sources; accordingly, it is no wonder that the attentive reader can encounter a few omissions, mistakes, or misconceptions in the course of his argument. For the sake of the authenticity of the original manuscript I have only occasionally intervened (see my Justification and Explanatory Notes to The Blues). Nonetheless, I would like to mention a few of Boom’s misconceptions here.

Boom dates the first song he analyzes in chapter 1, Back Water Blues, to be probably forty years old at least, while in research conducted at a later date (David Evans in Popular Music 26) it turns out that this number—written not by Ma Rainey but by Bessie Smith—refers to the flood in Nashville at the end of December 1926. He also made mistakes in the dating of other events or developments: coon songs did not exist prior to the Civil War, as he claimed, but only after (see Ragged but Right by Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff, 2007). Boom had derived from several sources that the process of developing a form and gaining notoriety had come to an end between 1890 and 1900, while subsequent research showed that this only took place afterward. He also based his claim that the blues probably originated first in New Orleans on the sources that were available at the time, all of which overestimated the importance of New Orleans regarding the origin of country blues.

There are certainly a few things that can be said against Boom’s definition of the blues; his knowledge of African roots forms was limited (he did not have Gerhard Kubik’s authoritative 1999 study Africa and the Blues at his disposal); the song Stack O’Lee Blues was called a ballad by subsequent researchers and not a blues as Boom had done. And when he used the term degeneration he meant that blues that had been influenced by white music or white preferences was less authentic and less original, and therefore degenerated.

Frans Boom’s provisional research depicts the state of affairs anno 1945 with regard to blues research. The classification he brings to his study in terms of human emotion continues to surprise me in its degree of precision and insight into human nature. His study is, in his own words, [not] complete in any way, but rather a beginning. But as a reviewer of the Dutch edition of the book observed, his work is still incredibly fresh and lucid.

Wim Verbei



Theo Kool, for the many memories he gave me, his warmheartedness, and his unquenchable enthusiasm for music, especially for the blues;

Guido van Rijn, my indispensable consultant in the editing of Boom’s Blues, for his painstakingly meticulous rendering of the proper song lyrics and compilation of the discography, as well as for his boundless and ever stimulating enthusiasm;

Gerard Mulder, my consultant during the editing of Boom’s Blues;

Ate van Delden, for the trust he showed me and for making the archives in his possession of Will Gilbert and H. R. Rookmaaker available to me;

Dorine van Heerdt tot Eversberg, for her cooperation and hospitality, and the access she granted me to the paper archive of her uncle Frans Boom;

Tony Russell, for hunting down documents in his attic and making available the November Books material;

Paul Oliver, for his advice and mediation with regard to the November Books material;

Prof. Dr. David Evans, for his advice and suggestions;

Jan Mulder, for his bright idea that a bibliographer ought to know everything about a book that was never published, as well as for his indispensable assistance in tracking down Boom’s manuscripts;

Cor van Sliedregt, for his useful suggestions with regard to the adaptation and presentation of Boom’s manuscript;

Leo Bruin, for his friendship over many years, his refreshingly maverick view of life, his pieces of advice about everything I ever wrote about the blues and his essential help in compiling the CD that went with the Dutch edition of this book;

Maarten de Boer, for the wonderful years with the Hoochie Coochie Band and his vital help mastering the CD;

Hans Mittelburg, for making available the snow-white suitcase full of special records, vital to the compilation of the CD;

The late Peter de Jong, for his inspiration and knowledge;

Martje Breedt Bruyn, for her generosity;

Herman Openneer of the Nederlands Jazz Archief (Dutch Jazz Archive), for his enthusiastic and entertaining monologues on jazz;

Toos and Eugenie Brands, for their hospitality and reminiscences about Eugène Brands;

Hans Renders, for his friendship and inspiration;

Elisabeth Egon Viebre for her love, patience, and incentive.


Without prejudice to their services rendered, in alphabetical order:

Afrika Instituut

Amerika Instituut, Prof. dr. Rob Kroes

Alan Balfour

Mr. M. L. Bauwens, former Second Secretary of the Dutch embassy in Jakarta

Bevolkingsregister (Resident Registration Office) Amsterdam

Bevolkingsregister (Resident Registration Office) The Hague

Bibliotheek Koninklijk Instituut voor de Tropen (Library of the Royal Tropical Institute)

Centraal Archief Bijzondere Rechtspleging (Central Archives for Special Legal Procedures)

Frank de Bruin, press secretary for the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Fonds voor Bijzondere Journalistieke Projecten (Dutch Fund for Exceptional Projects in Journalism)

Mrs. Thea Goedewaagen

Mrs. M. ten Haaff

Haags Gemeente Archief (The Hague Municipal Archives)

Dr. André Lehr, head curator of Nationaal Beijaardmuseum (Dutch National Carillon Museum) in Asten

Leids Prentenkabinet (Leiden Print Gallery)

Ministerie van Justitie (Ministry of Justice)

Music Library of the University of Amsterdam

Nationaal Archief (Dutch National Archives)

Nederlands Jazz Archief (Dutch Jazz Archive)

RIOD/NIOD (Netherlands Institute of War Documentation)

University of Amsterdam, semi-static archives

University Library of the University of Utrecht

Vrije Universiteit (Free University of Amsterdam), former archivist Hugo van Kinschot

As well as: Hans Boom in Breda, Jan Boom in Amsterdam, and Ernst Boom in Amsterdam for their futile search in their genealogical records for Frans Boom.



Ask when the Netherlands first became acquainted with African American blues music and nine out of ten devotees will answer: in the second half of the 1960s, during the American Folk Blues Festivals (AFBFs). Even though this answer is incorrect, there is still a lot to be said for it. That is because the festivals, brought to Europe by the German booking agency Lippmann & Rau, ensured that a large white European audience was introduced for the first time to an impressive body of top players picked from the vast arsenal of American blues artists.¹

Therefore, for many the beginning of the era of blues music in the Netherlands coincides with one of the AFBF concerts. The 1964 tour, which included Sonny Boy Williamson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Sleepy John Estes among its ranks, did not get any closer to the Dutch border than Düsseldorf;² but from 1965 until 1972, whole teams of American blues greats could be admired and applauded in The Hague or Amsterdam. Anyone who was there can then tell his grandchildren he had once seen Fred McDowell, John Lee Hooker, Skip James, Son House, T-Bone Walker, Big Joe Williams, Bukka White, or one of the many other legends perform in person. Anyone who missed it can console himself with a series of DVDs.³

However, the American Folk Blues Festival of 1965 was not the first blues concert in the Netherlands. That privilege fell to the guitarist/singer Big Bill Broonzy, who more than a decade earlier had conquered the Netherlands on his own. The Hague–born Wouter van Gool, the man behind the Haagse (Hague) Jazz Club (HJC), saw Broonzy perform in Paris in 1951 with piano player/singer Blind John Davis. Owing to Van Gool’s enthusiasm and efforts Broonzy made his Dutch debut on November 7, 1952, in a small upstairs hall in the downtown district of The Hague, where the HJC was located. A day later Broonzy, now honorary member of the HJC, also performed at a Jazz Evening in the Kurhaus in Scheveningen.

Big Bill Broonzy, referred to by The Hague press as Negro Blues Singer, elicited the following commentary from a reviewer: His voice, with which he was able to strike the typical Negro intonation, and his performance, free of any contrived effects, once again served as a reminder to those in attendance that jazz music is indeed music of the Negro and that there are forms of Jazz, where whites should confine themselves to just listening.⁴ And listening was just what Dutch jazz fans did: Broonzy became a welcome guest everyone wanted to see. At the end of February and beginning of March 1953, just after the Zeeland floods, he made a genuine tour of the Netherlands,⁵ including some benefit concerts for the Rampenfonds (Zeeland Disaster Fund). Louis van Gasteren, who became a well-known moviemaker in the Netherlands later on, made audio recordings of the Amsterdam concerts on February 26 and 28 that were only released in 2006.⁶

Broonzy visited Europe again in 1955, where he played not only in London and Brussels⁷ but also in Haarlem, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and The Hague. In addition, on November 26 he appeared in the AVRO studios on the radio program Radioscoop and on the television program AVRO’s Jazz Sociëteit. A few days later he was a guest at the home of producer Michiel de Ruyter,⁸ where he talked a blue streak with Paul Breman, among others.⁹ Shortly afterwards, in February 1956 Broonzy visited the Netherlands for the last time. After giving concerts in the Kurhaus in Scheveningen and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, he made the first blues album ever recorded in the Netherlands at the Philips studios in Baarn (Philips LP 012).


Consequently, the beginning of the era for blues music in the Netherlands may be attributed to Big Bill Broonzy’s The Hague première in 1952. Personally I would choose the year 1926, a date that has two advantages. First of all, we can then keep the blues calendar unadulterated. We can ignore the spirituals adapted for white listeners by the Fisk Jubilee Singers—who were the very first African American music group to give concerts in the Netherlands,¹⁰ in 1875 and 1877, as well as the first book in the Dutch language about African American music that was connected to these tours.¹¹ Nor do we have to take into account Jarret & Palmer’s World Famous American Negro Troupe, who toured in the Netherlands in 1880. This troupe, consisting of 32 persons, including 24 freed Slaves, Negroes, Mulattos, Mestizos, and so forth, gave performances that included such things as New Scenes from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and ended with a Great Plantation feast with National Negro Song and Dance. It is highly unlikely that there would have been any blues included in their moving performances of scenes of Negro life.¹² Nor would the blues have resounded during the Dutch tour of December 1900 by Arabella Fields, one of the renowned American Jubilee Singers, and a certain Mr. James Terry, one of the members of her troupe who during the Great Negro Concert twice performed a solo for harmonica and was able to produce absolutely beautiful tones from his instrument.¹³

The second advantage to considering 1926 as the year in which the Dutch blues era began is because the event on which I base that date is a scene that appeals to the imagination, even to an international blues community. Our thanks go out to the Dutch daily newspaper De Telegraaf. At the end of 1925 this newspaper sent reporter L. M. G. Arntzenius to New York for two months to inform Dutch readers of the state of American art culture and to answer the question whether or not the American public had a true love of art or only allowed itself to be led by childish snobbism.’ In short, column-like pieces with a flowery pen, Arntzenius reported his findings in concert halls, at the opera, theater, and operettas. With the Western European arrogance characteristic of the times, he concluded that the love of art in America is above all else different from that found in Europe. There is more of a hunger for art than a love of art: One yearns for art, like a child does for presents…. All these feelings are primitive and extremely strong. They are unruly, vital, yes, passionate.

While in New York, Arntzenius spoke with many musicians and composers, including George Gershwin, about the question of jazz. Was jazz, like many people at the time in the Netherlands thought it was, immoral-sensual, hollow virtuosity or was it art? And was there a future for this music? Gershwin put Arntzenius in touch with Carl van Vechten, the music critic for the New York Times, author of the novella Nigger Heaven, and a central figure in the so-called Harlem Renaissance. Van Vechten thought that Arntzenius should experience jazz for himself and sent him to a colored revue in a theater in Newark. It turned out to be a remarkable experience. In a sold out hall there must have been about 1500 Negroes: I am the sole representative of a different race, Arntzenius noted. He did not understand much of the comedy routines, from the rapid fire delivery of language only the occasional word. The buffoons, actors, actresses, and dancers all passed by in review without moving or entertaining him. I wait patiently until all the humor is exhausted and Clara Smith deigns to grace us with her presence.

To my mind, the Arntzenius paragraphs that followed are unique in the history of the blues, that is to say they are a plastic description of a performance in 1925 of a female blues vocalist. Allert de Lange Publishers in Amsterdam had the foresight to collect the series of newspaper pieces which Arntzenius wrote for De Telegraaf during his temporary New York posting and published them in a book with the title Amerikaansche kunstindrukken (American Impressions of Art). Thanks to Arntzenius’s eyes, ears, and pen, we can still take our place with those fifteen hundred listeners at the theater in Newark: Finally, there she is. A big, strapping dark woman, proudly braving the storm of applause and hollers. She is clad in black; only a few embroidered flowers on her dress add a dash of color to her appearance.

Right from the very first second she has the audience in the palm of her hands, Arntzenius remarks. She has a brief and extremely intense glance at the audience, who becomes deathly silent and only begins breathing again after she cracks a joke and laughs. Her first songs are jolly. Loud, moving boisterously, she walks across the stage, cracking jokes to the first few rows of seats. The hall hangs on her every word and gesture with covarmbias utmost intensity. Even the slightest, yes practically imperceptible nuance does not escape their attention: they react to each and every single note. Every song is followed by the tumultuously loud buzz of the passionately moved audience.

Clara leaves the stage after five numbers. Her accompanist plays on, improvising on his own. And the sound becomes quieter, more monotonous: the languid blasts of the blues gradually emerge from its soft haze. He is telling a story in song, to himself, unintelligible to us all. Eyes closed, head thrust back, his tragic-fixed mouth slowly begins moving, practically inaudible … Pain is swelling all around me. Shaking gently, all the bodies in the hall move to the plaintive rhythm. An indefinable sense of grief overcomes the entire audience. Nostalgia staring pensively from each and every eye, resigned and heartrending … Silence …

Arntzenius is engaged in participatory journalism avant la lettre here, that includes an elegant building of suspense. For naturally what follows is: The cry! From behind the scenes it comes, loud and plaintive: the blue note … All of a sudden Clara is there, her body like a flame, enveloping the brown of her skin in bright orange and black. Her mouth agape, as if in trance her head thrust back. Hard and cruel sounds the note of the blues like a scream of pain, that haunts and frightens each and every one of us. Loud, loud, torn from her throat in a deep trill, the shriek of a wounded, tortured animal.

Arntzenius devoted a few more passages to the lyrics, the blue-note, the phrasing, and concludes: The impression, this endless complaint arouses, is very deep indeed. It is very difficult to compare it to what we think of as art; the closest comparison is the beauty of an animal. That at any rate is what lends it its power to fascinate.

In 1926 De Telegraaf, with its daily circulation of 86,000,¹⁴ was the second largest newspaper in the Netherlands and much smaller than De Courant Het Nieuws van den Dag (212,000). But never before—and never again?—would such a large Dutch audience be confronted with the passions and emotions that can characterize a performance by a blues artist.

To me then, 1926 would be the appropriate date to usher in the blues era in the Netherlands.


Now that

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