A debate still rages among musicologists and other blues historians over what was the first published blues song, who wrote it and who performed it. Many historians credit W.C. Handy’s “Memphis Blues” (1912) with the honor while others claim another song called “Baby Seals Blues” (August 1912) was first because its publication predated “Memphis Blues” by several months. The problem with this argument is that Hart A. Wand’s instrumental “Dallas Blues” (which had nothing to do with the Texas city) had been published five months earlier in the same year. However, a couple of aspects of “Baby Seals Blues” that all can agree on is that: 1) it was the first blues song published by an African American, and 2) it was the first published blues song featuring vocals.
Some of the song’s lyrics:
“I got the blues, can’t be satisfied today.
I got them bad, want to lay down and die.
Woke up this morning ‘bout half past four, Somebody knocking at my door,
I went out to see what it was about, they told me that my honey gal was gone,
I said, Bub that’s bad news, So sing for me them blues.”
“(She) Honey baby mamma do she do she
double do love you, (Spoken) YEAH HOO
I Love you ba-a-be don’t care what you do, (Spoken) SUEY
(He) Oh sing ‘em, sing ‘em, sing them blues ‘cause they cert’ly sound good to me,
I’ve been in love these last three weeks, and it cert’ly is a misery,
There ain’t but one thing I wish was right. I wish my honey babe was here tonight,
(She) Honey babe, Mammas coming back to you,
(He) Come on babe, Oh sing ‘em, sing ‘em, sing them blues,
‘Cause they cert’ly sound good to me.”
The song, of course, was named after its writer. Wikipedia describes him as follows: “African American Franklin ‘Baby’ Seals was born in Mobile, Alabama, around 1880 [d. 1915]. He first came to public attention in 1909 as the pianist at the Lyric Theatre in Shreveport, Louisiana. In 1910 his ragtime ‘coon song’ [minstrel show genre that lampooned blacks] called ‘Shake, Rattle & Roll’ (unrelated, except in title, to the later song by Jesse Stone) was published by Louis Grunewald & Co. in New Orleans. The same year, he directed and performed in shows in Houston and Galveston, Texas.”
In 1909, Seals had teamed up in Texas with Miss Floyd Fisher, who was known as “The Doll of Memphis.” The synergy of the two helped produce “Baby Seals Blues,” which was published in St. Louis, Missouri in August 1912, with words and music credited to Baby F. Seals, and stating that it was featured by Seals and Fisher [his wife], “that Klassy Kooney Komedy Pair.” The sheet music stipulated that it was to be played “very slow.” The reason: the fast and furious rhythm and beat of ragtime was all the rage around the turn of the century, so the newly emerging blues sound was to distinguish itself by being played slower.
Seals was also a visionary; he had always tried to promote his vaudeville blues style in the black theaters of the north. Although he largely succeeded in that task, he and his wife ironically became the biggest act on the black vaudeville circuit of the south between 1912 and 1914, just as WWI started to explode in Europe. Also exploding at that time in the United States was African Americans’ interest in hearing their own music, the blues, played publicly.
Irwin Bosman, writing in No Depression: The Journal of Roots Music, puts Seals’ career into context: “The 1910’s rising popularity of the blues on the performance stage and on music sheets, provided the fertile soil for the flourishing of the commercial recordings of blues in the 1920’s. It is in this context that I measure the role played by Franklin Seals. His historic renown mainly derives from his famous 1912 composition, but this is a one-sided, incomplete picture. Seals is grossly underestimated as a live artist on the vaudeville stage.”
A contemporary correspondent for the Indianapolis Freeman wrote that the blues, like the one published by Franklin Seals, was of a “clever nature” and “more consciously developed than most blues presentations of the time.” The early blues music sheet was thus a hybrid form, building on the popularity of ragtime, but introducing idioms coming from the African American folk, or country, blues. The new genre was slowly capturing the attention of the public.
Then came Mamie Smith’s 1920 release of “Crazy Blues,” which was perhaps the tipping point for the rising popularity of blues music. Her recording sold an astonishing 75,000 copies in the first month. Smith’s success with “Crazy Blues” came as a complete surprise to record labels, but they soon realized that making records of blues songs was profitable. The rest is history.
Baby Seals Blues