“By this time the United States had experienced a generous exposure to jazz and blues in the somewhat indecorous context of the sideshow annex.” (203)
“P. G. Lowery was idolized by his contemporary musicians, and there is ample evidence that the ‘Lowery school’ was a primary factor in the development of modern African American popular music and jazz.” (207)
“Phonograph records have long been the major jumping-off point for blues and jazz scholarship. The fact that Lowery and his band made no recordings has had a profound effect on the place he has been accorded in American music history.” (207)
These quotes from the book Ragged But Right: Black Traveling Shows, “Coon Songs,” and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz by Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff (2007) intrigued me enough to seek out further reading about P.G. Lowery–sideshow bandmaster and supposed key architect of jazz. I was pleasantly surprised to find that a biography had been written in 2003, and I wasted little time ordering the book. Lowery was a fixture in circus sideshows for over forty years, and I had hope that the book would contain some intriguing insights into the culture of both circus/vaudeville workers and black America in the 1920s and ’30s.
However, by the end of the book’s first chapter, a familiar disappointment began to creep into my subconscious. Like so many other published works related to the circus, Showman is but a superficial glance off the surface of a subject of unfathomable depth. Since I’ve voiced many of these gripes in a past review, I will try to keep this brief.
The author mentions that Lowery was a part of a “turn away from minstrelsy,” (63) and that he produced an unexpectedly sophisticated and respectable entertainment suitable for the mixed offerings of the vaudeville stage. Here an in-depth look at the minstrel tradition in the United States as well as a discussion of the rise of vaudeville in the early twentieth century would seem appropriate, if not essential. Even a cursory look at David Nasaw’s Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements (1999) could provide some context. Similarly, the particulars of circus sideshow bands and their significance is barely hinted at. Lowery’s innovations, whatever they might have been, remain obscure.
Similarly, the American Federation of Musicians union trouble in the late 1930s is entirely overlooked. Surely Lowery experienced this upheaval towards the end of his career. It would seem necessary to discuss events that had such far-reaching implications to his profession, particularly in a book which mentions those that do not, such as blowdowns and illnesses. In a particularly awkward passage, the author seems to suggest that the Great Depression was over by 1940. Even though the Depression’s effects on the entertainment industry are not previously a part of Watkins’ narrative, he writes, “People were becoming more likely to spend money for entertainment as they moved further away from the Great Depression of a decade ago, and the show did well during the 1940 season” (125).
The book’s sloppiness is further evidenced by the author’s inconsistency when referring to the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. Though publications often confused the title, particularly in the early days of the combine, the fact remains that the show was never “Wallace-Hagenbeck,” or any other of the jumbled permutations used in the book. Benjamin Wallace deliberately placed Hagenbeck’s name before his own due to the reputation that it brought. This may seem like a small point that only circus buffs would bother with, but the author should at the very least choose a title and use it consistently instead of flip-flopping.
The book’s merit is that it effectively demonstrates the dual life of a circus employee, working on the circus during the summer months and finding alternative venues for the winter. But from my perspective, Showman is fundamentally only half of a book. It is a consolidation of many years of primary source material (specifically one source: The Indianapolis Freeman) on an admittedly important subject, but with no interpretation from secondary sources. What does it mean? Why is Lowery important? How was the world different when his career ended? Readers can only speculate.