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Red Lick Records



The English Music Hall Connection
by Max Haymes
(converted to web format from the original typescript by Alan White)


Of all the subjects in these studies, the music hall is probably the farthest away from Africa. Or put another way, it is the link with the Blues which can be considered the most 'non-African'.

The phenomenon of the music hall was originally a peculiarly English institution of the working-classes which seems to have been centered in London and from there spread to other towns and cities throughout the British Isles.

It is necessary, therefore, for the purpose of this study to delve into the origins of this phenomenon. The inclusion of pleasure-gardens, Free-and-Easies, music booths in fairgrounds, etc. is a well that has been visited many times in the past; however, the albeit brief, reference to street singers, penny gaffs, and broadside ballad sheets in connection with the early days of music halls is, I contend, territory which is rarely covered. In the case of Mayhew's 'purl-men' on the Thames, I know of no other written reference to this phenomenon in connection, the oral transmission of music hall songs. Indeed, I have not yet come across the phrase 'purl-men' anywhere else! Of course, even the more familiar origins of the 'halls', as listed above, have never been linked to the Blues of the Deep South in the United States; except in passing.

Although one of these rare references states that few music hall songs reappeared in the Blues, which were first recorded some 20-odd years after the hey-day of music halls (1890-1914), it only gives part of the true picture. If the English songs themselves did not resurface on Blues records, themes, phrases, and even words, showing the music hall influence, certainly did. I will be com­paring the efforts of some of the English 19th. century singers such as Vesta Victoria and Marie Lloyd with those of some of the so-called 'Classic' Blues singers in the 1920's. As Stewart-Baxter put it "The term Classic Blues has al­ways been a very inaccurate description for such a varied form. However we twist and turn the phrase, we come back to the strongest influence, that of vaudeville and the music hall."(1). This influence covers the whole spectrum of the genre from more 'light-hearted' offerings of an Edith Wilson to the 'heavy' blues of a Bessie Smith. Stewart-Baxter rightly posits that "It would be more correct to call them Vaudeville Blues."(2).

But this is not the only area of the Blues to feel the influence of the English music hall. I shall be using examples from singers of other categories of the Blues, to illustrate that themes and songs were adapted by singers with widely diversifying styles and from different geographical areas.

How these influences occurred will be covered in Chapter 2; or at least the suggested routes will be argued. Many English music hall singers visited the U.S.A. in the latter half of the 19th. century and travelled as far as the West Coast. The age of minstrelsy and 'blackface' or 'coon songs' (via Thomas Rice and his song "Jim Crow" in the 1830's), brought many American artists to British shores, including the Moore and Burgess Minstrels, which inspired a whole series of 'coon songs' by English music hall artists. Of course by 1912, the latest craze of ragtime brought even more U.S. visitors who made their musical influence also felt.

From 1893, many of the music hall performers committed their vocal efforts and songs to cylinders and later to records. In the first decade of the present century, a few recorded in New York City and Camden, New Jersey. Record­ings, once they arrived, were to play a vital role in the continuation of different cultures. "The recording is not simply a documentary device that composes a new selective tradition - affecting who heard what when - but a means for reshaping and extending the oral tradition."(3). In the U.S. blacks could hear fellow mus­icians and singers from regions all over the States, for the first time and as Sidran says "Many Negroes in all parts of the United States gained their first significant exposure to their own culture through records rather than through live performances."(4). Although many English music hall artists did not have records released in the U.S.A., a lot of them travelled through the country giving live performances, with varying degrees of success. With the advent of the first black Blues singer, Mamie Smith, on record in 1920, this opened up a veritable flood-gate of black performers. Sidran states "The recording industry predated by several years the influence of radio and was the major source-cultural transmission during the early twenties."(5). By this transmission I intend to show that the English music hall connection is in fact a strong, non-African root of the Blues.


1. Stewart-Baxter D.p.9S.
2. Ibid.
3. Sidran B.p.64.
4. Ibid.p.65.
5. Ibid.


Chapter I : In The Beginning - Chaunters and Broadsides

Website © Copyright 2001-2008 Alan  White. All Rights Reserved.
Text (this page) © Copyright 1992 Max Haymes. All Rights Reserved.
For further information please email: alan.white@earlyblues.com