Many cities claim to be the cradle of the Blues. Saint Louis has a very nice Blues museum, and so does Clarksdale, Mississippi. The Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown, said New Orleans was “the home of the Blues.” Cincinnati has never exerted a serious claim along those lines, but we must ask: Did Lafcadio Hearn discover something like the Blues in Cincinnati as early as 1876?
It is impossible to research Cincinnati history without running into the man who was born on a Grecian island in 1850 as Patricio Lafcadio Tessima Carlos Hearn, and who was buried in 1904 as Koizumi Yakumo in Japan. During the decade he wrote for Cincinnati newspapers, he was known as Lafcadio Hearn. Abandoned by his parents, shuttled among a collection of uncaring Irish relatives, Hearn was shipped off to America by a cousin plotting to steal his inheritance. He made his way to Cincinnati and while here wrote hundreds of articles, many of them for the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Cincinnati Commercial.
Over a period of months, Hearn wandered through what he called the Levee and what we call the Public Landing to listen to some music. He wrote a lengthy article headlined “Levee Life/Haunts and Pastimes of the Roustabouts/Their Original Songs and Peculiar Dances” published by the Cincinnati Commercial on March 17, 1876. Hearn sets the scene in typical fashion, employing long, languorous sentences emphasizing the strange and unfamiliar aspects of this environment so alien to his white middle-class readers.
“But, on a cool spring evening, when the levee is bathed in moonlight, and the torch-basket lights dance redly upon the water, and the clear air vibrates to the sonorous music of the deep-toned steam-whistle, and the sound of wild banjo thrumming floats out through the open doors of the levee dance-houses, then it is perhaps that one can best observe the peculiarities of this grotesquely-picturesque roustabout life.”
When Hearn says he was on the Levee, he actually meant the neighborhood just east of the Public Landing, known then as Sausage Row, which is now the greenspace along the Serpentine Wall. He also collected songs from the city’s largest African American neighborhood, known as Bucktown. Bucktown was located between Broadway and Culvert streets and between Sixth and Seventh. It is now nothing but parking lots.
Hearn transcribed a selection of lyrics collected from the African American residents of the Cincinnati riverfront. Hearn’s ear immediately recognized that the music he heard down in Bucktown and on the Levee was different from anything his white readers were familiar with. As he said:
“You may hear old Kentucky slave songs chanted nightly on the steamboats, in that wild, half-melancholy key peculiar to the natural music of the African race; and you may see the old slave dances nightly performed to the air of some ancient Virginia-reel in the dance-houses of Sausage Row, or the ‘ball-rooms’ of Bucktown.”
Doesn’t that sound like the Blues? Some of the lyrics Hearn transcribed could be picked up by modern Blues artists and recorded today. For example, Hearn presents a song titled “Ninety-Nine”:
Whar do you get yer whisky?
Whar do you get yer rum?
I got it down in Bucktown,
At Number Ninety-nine.
I come down the mountain,
An’ she come down the lane,
An’ all that I could say to her
Was, “Good-by, ‘Liza Jane.”
Hearn would have had no way of knowing at the time, but he recorded songs that are just a step or two from evolving into the classic Blues format. It is regrettable that he did not capture the tunes supporting these lyrics. Yet another near-Blues, a song Hearn said was sung exclusively by women, would have fit perfectly into the repertoire of Bessie Smith or Ma Rainey:
I have a roustabout for my man—
Livin ‘ with a white man for a sham,
Oh, leave me alone,
Leave me alone,
I’d like you much better if you’d leave me alone.
While Hearn does not provide musical notation for the songs, he does describe the instrumentation that accompanied them:
“A well-dressed, neatly-built mulatto picked the banjo, and a somewhat lighter colored musician led the music with a fiddle, which he played remarkably well and with great spirit. A short, stout Negress, illy dressed, with a rather good-natured face and a bed shawl tied about her head, played the bass viol, and that with no inexperienced hand.”
Hearn’s description of an evening in one of the Bucktown saloons sounds like just the sort of environment in which the Blues were born somewhere along the waterways of America. Whatever Hearn found, whether it was the embryonic Blues or a related offshoot that died on the vine we may never know, because Lafcadio Hearn didn’t stick around much longer.
One day, Hearn wrote to his local mentor, an anarchist printer named Henry Watkin, “It is time for a fellow to get out of Cincinnati when they begin to call it the Paris of America.” Hearn went off to New Orleans on the way to the West Indies and on to Japan, where he spent the rest of his life.