Staging the Blues

From Tent Shows to Tourism

Staging the Blues

Book Pages: 304 Illustrations: 28 illustrations Published: September 2014

American Studies, Music > Popular Music, Theater and Performance > Performance Art

Singing was just one element of blues performance in the early twentieth century. Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and other classic blues singers also tapped, joked, and flaunted extravagant costumes on tent show and black vaudeville stages. The press even described these women as "actresses" long before they achieved worldwide fame for their musical recordings. In Staging the Blues, Paige A. McGinley shows that even though folklorists, record producers, and festival promoters set the theatricality of early blues aside in favor of notions of authenticity, it remained creatively vibrant throughout the twentieth century. Highlighting performances by Rainey, Smith, Lead Belly, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee in small Mississippi towns, Harlem theaters, and the industrial British North, this pioneering study foregrounds virtuoso blues artists who used the conventions of the theater, including dance, comedy, and costume, to stage black mobility, to challenge narratives of racial authenticity, and to fight for racial and economic justice.


"A fascinating study that ought to be widely read and its implications thoughtfully considered. For scholars, critics, historians, and aficionados of the blues." — Genevieve ­Williams, Library Journal

“[McGinley] does a worthy job of explaining how the dominant framing of the blues essentially assigned the very notion of theatrical performance – and, by extension, a performer’s right to develop a stage presence of his/her own choosing – to a gendered, second-class status. The irony turns out to be that said framing was itself a theatrical construct in the first place.” — Mark Reynolds, PopMatters

“In this concise musical journey of the mise-en-scène of blues music performances, McGinley takes readers to the South, starting with the tent shows of an earlier era and concluding with the current staging of the blues for genre travelers and tourists. … Readers are left with the knowledge of what scenic staging has meant for blues throughout the decades. … Recommended. All readers.” — T. Emery, Choice

“Staging the Blues will likely become the latest in a line of mould-breaking scholarly works on the blues to have emerged in recent years. McGinley’s emphasis on theatricality brings life to well-worn subjects, and aptly illustrates the benefits of an interdisciplinary approach that is not yet the norm in blues scholarship. This book is quite simply a must for all scholars and students of African American performance culture.”

— Lawrence Davies, Studies in Theatre and Performance

“Tracing the iterative qualities of theatrical blues trappings and their transformation by blues performers, Staging the Blues makes an important contribution to our understanding of the production and performance of race. Its exhaustive archival depth recasts familiar performances and introduces new material that adds to the scholarly repertoire of black performance studies. Most significantly, it establishes a vital conversation between popular theatre and music that provides a model of interdisciplinary performance studies.”  — Shane Vogel, Theatre Research International

"Staging the Blues provides an important corrective to some of the most commonly held assumptions regarding the blues, while providing important insights into the constructed nature of the genre today." — Critical Inquiry

"[T]his study will prove to be one of the most captivating additions to the scholarship on the blues to date." — Tammy L. Kernodle, American Studies

"In short, this book is a must-read. McGinley’s methodology and historical purview tear down those worn-out perceptions of authenticity to reinsert the thespian dynamism of American vernacular music." — Stephanie Vander Wel, Journal of Southern History

"Staging the Blues complicates and reaches beyond the blues landscape, making it a significant and timely text for scholars and music aficionados alike."

— Emily Rutter, Women & Performance

"McGinley centers African American performers and how they have interacted with various narratives of southerness that constituted their marketing and performances, showing the instability between categories of the authentic and the theatrical. . . . This book makes a good read for scholars of American studies, and U.S. and African American history, and for general audiences interested in the blues." — Fiona I. B. Ngô, Journal of American History

"Staging the Blues is an exemplary contribution to a new body of performance studies scholarship that embeds music critically in its sociopolitical, cultural, and artistic milieu." — Joseph Roach, TDR: The Drama Review

"Taken together, the five case studies in Staging the Blues offer an important corrective to standard blues histories by emphasizing performativity and theatricality as central elements of the genre, from its origins in tent shows and on vaudeville stages to TV programs and tourist sites in the blues revival that began in the sixties and has continued into the present. . . . In arguing that staging is an essential element in the construction of the music, McGinley helps to reorient blues scholarship’s problematic gender politics and convincingly argues that theatricality is integral to any expression of authenticity within the genre." — Ulrich Adelt, Modern Drama

"In unpackaging what we thought we knew about blues performances, McGinley powerfully demonstrates their centrality in shaping a musical history for the United States and beyond." — Patricia R. Schroeder, African American Review

"McGinley has radically reconstructed the map of the blues." — Mike Sell, Theatre Journal

"Paige McGinley’s text provides a unique examination of the theatrical roots and aspects of blues performance in the twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries and is an exciting contribution to the fields of performance and American studies." — Brian J. Lefresne, Callaloo

"Staging the Blues provides an important corrective to some of the most commonly held assumptions regarding the blues, while providing important insights into the constructed nature of the genre today." — Peter Dunbaugh Smith, Theatre Annual

"McGinley has written a commendable study of a unique American cultural form that provides a much needed corrective to blues history. It is a fine work of scholarship." — Greg A. Phelps, Arkansas Review

"Staging the Blues challenges an important historiographical conversation centered on authenticity by revealing authenticity’s shifting meaning once examined through the lens of stage performance. The book’s fascinating examination of the transmission of the blues to Europe following the end of World War II is particularly insightful." — Kevin D. Greene, Journal of American Ethnic History

"This beautifully written and engaging account of how blues has been staged will change for good how theater scholars think of musical performance, and how music scholars think of theater. Paige A. McGinley's observation that 'authenticity is produced theatrically, on stage, in the context of the performance event' deconstructs the binary between authenticity and inauthenticity, allowing her to focus on black agency and subjectivity as it is produced in and through performance."
— Gayle Wald, author of Shout, Sister, Shout! The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe

"Staging the Blues is a much-needed, even game-changing intervention into dominant models for the study of blues music and culture. Based on amazing original research, Paige A. McGinley reassesses what we think we know about the blues, offers bold and insightful analyses of the racial and gendered politics of blues performance and reception, and, crucially, restores critical recognition of the theatricality of the blues and its historical place in traditions of popular performance." — Jayna Brown, author of Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern


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Price: $27.95

Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Paige A. McGinley is Assistant Professor of Performing Arts at Washington University in St. Louis.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments vii

Introduction. Beale on Broadway 1

1. Real Personality: The Blues Actress 31

2. Theater Folk: Huddie Ledbetter on the Stage 82

3. Southern Exposure: Transatlantic Blues 129

4. Highway 61 Revisited: Blues Tourism at Ground Zero 177

Notes 221

Bibliography 257

Index 271
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing

Winner, 2015 John W. Frick Book Award, presented by the American Theatre and Drama Society

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-5745-2 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-5731-5
Publicity material