When you first read the fake newspaper headlines in Harry Smith's liner notes for Volume One of his Anthology of American Folk Music, you're forced to stop what you're doing, sit down, and read them all very closely.
Harry knew what he was doing.
Those headlines are great devices of seduction — or a fishhook through the mouth. In turn, his liner notes, as a whole, have helped make his 1952 collection of 1920's records one of the most influential documents in American music.
This morning, for the first time, I read something that finally made real sense of these queer little jokey headlines. It was in William Howland Kenney's description of the various ways record companies got records into the hands of consumers in the 1920's:
... the newsboys of the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Defender regularly carried copies of the latest records of the week along with their newspapers. They sold the disks at $1 apiece; for many customers the records were as important as the news. As one newsboy recalled: "You'd go to one customer and she'd get all excited over a new blues and start telling you all about her girl friend or some relative who was sure to buy one, too."
— Chicago Jazz: A Cultural History, 1904-1930, p 123
It's perfectly sensible, then, to suppose that a corner newsboy might literally have shouted something like "Extra! Extra! Mamie Smith's man don't treat her right! Has Crazy Blues!"
If so, the newsboys and Harry Everett Smith shared the same technique for drawing attention to the records, as does the Anthology itself to this very day.
Whether Harry understood this, I don't know — but it would be worth looking into. He was born in 1923 in Washington state and grew up mostly in Bellingham, where I doubt corner newsboys were a common sight. This sales method appears to have been little-known among researchers until it was described by William Howland Kenney in his (mind-blowing) 1993 book. Harry Smith died in 1991.
Smith's headlines have been posted by someone named Joshua, at someplace called "Dinner on the Molly." He also helpfully includes links to the songs at YouTube.
It would be great if, someday, a really well-made interactive replica of the Anthology, closely based on Harry's liner notes, were legally available online. Joshua's blog entry and the YouTube piracy are evocative how this might work.
See also my entry about the availability of the liner notes from Smithsonian.