Born: June 18, 1884 | Died: May 24, 1955 Primary Instrument: Vocal
Although overshadowed in the annals of blues history by her contemporaries Gertrude Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, Sara Martin was a true pioneer in her own right as a performer and recording artist. Martin was a popular vaudeville act on the Theater Owners' Booking Association (TOBA) circuit that showcased African-American artists, and she also enjoyed a prolific career as a recording artist on the OKeh and Columbia labels.
In the 1920s she made well over 100 records on those labels, often recording songs she co-wrote, such as Mean Tight Mama and Mama's Got the Blues. Martin also worked with some of the other early blues giants of the day, such as W.C. Handy, Georgia Tom Dorsey, and Fats Waller, before leaving the blues scene in the early 1930s.
Although Louisville did not match the vitality of such jazz and blues centers as St. Louis, New Orleans, or Chicago, it had developed its own vibrant music scene by the late nineteenth century, when the blues singer later known as Sara Martin grew up. Born on June 18, 1884, Martin grew up in a city ruled by harsh racial segregation. By 1900 Louisville had become known for its string bands (with guitar, banjo, and violin) and jug bands (with musicians using various combinations of gallon jugs, kazoos, mandolins, guitars, and harmonicas). Martin later brought one Louisville string-band guitarist, Sylvester Weaver, with her to New York City for one of her recording sessions in 1923; the tracks became the first-ever blues recordings that featured a guitar accompaniment.
At some point after the turn of the century, Martin moved to Chicago, where she began singing with local jug, string, and blues bands. In doing so, she was part of the first wave of female blues performers who became important in popularizing the genre in subsequent years. After rural blues music started to appear in urban areas such as New Orleans and Chicago, female African-American singers came into their own as theatrical performers. In contrast to male blues singers, who retained much of the raw and sometimes improvisational nature of the rural blues, female blues singers developed into highly stylized, but still evocative, blues performers. As one such performer, Martin exemplified this period of classic blues, which extended through the years of the Great Depression. Like other women who sang the classic blues, Martin had a dignified, yet forceful and passionate, stage presence.
Martin was 30 years old before she started to tour the country as a blues singer. Her period as a vaudeville attraction began in 1915 and extended to 1931, when the effects of the Great Depression curtailed most theatrical endeavors. Although Martin's reputation as a live act outshone her recorded output, the singer made more than 100 recordings during the 1920s. Between 1923 and 1928 Martin recorded for the OKeh label, the premier record label for African-American artists of the day. Although OKeh also recorded white artists, its phenomenal success with Mamie Smith's Crazy Blues in 1920 made it into the best-known jazz and blues label of the 1920s and 1930s. Martin's stylized, theatrical renderings of the blues paled in comparison to those of her contemporaries Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, yet some of her self-penned lyrics demonstrated a wry humor that was Martin's own. She also demonstrated an even more ribald side in some of her other compositions such as Mean Tight Mama.
Although she had lived up to her early billing as The Blues Sensation from the West and The Moanin' Mama, Martin's career, along with those of many other performers, suffered with the onset of the Great Depression. Based in Chicago during her touring and recording career, Martin left the music business in the early 1930s and returned to live in Louisville. She remained in Kentucky as the owner and operator of a nursing home and died at the age of 70 in Louisville on May 24, 1955, from a stroke.
Her performances live on in Martin's Complete Recorded Works, a four-volume set released in 1996 by Document Records. In addition to her recordings, some of Martin's live performances were captured on film.
Source: Timothy Borden