Antonio Maggio was a fascinating man best known as an early creator of blues music. His song “I Got the Blues,” which became a hit in New Orleans in 1908, was the first published 12-bar blues with “blues” in the title. The dramatic events of his life, besides showing the context of his musical imagination, illustrate the unique process of becoming a New Orleanian during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Born in Cefalu, Sicily in 1876, Maggio came
to the city as a teenager, and like his father and his brothers, he was a consummate musician and multi-instrumentalist.
Though he worked at his brother’s barbershop, he was said to spend more time playing music in the streets, and was a contemporary of other notable New Orleans music pioneers; in the mid-1890s, he was playing in a string band at Poydras Market, just a couple of blocks away from Charlie Galloway’s barbershop frequented by Buddy Bolden. By the time he was 25, he had led a brass band, played background music for wild animal shows, and toured the United States with an opera company. Then, the major shattering event of his life happened: President McKinley was felled by an assassin’s bullet, and Maggio, due to his loudly proclaimed sympathies for both socialism and anarchism, was detained without trial as a suspect. Several months passed before he was released, then he returned to New Orleans to resume his musical career. For years, he was playing several gigs around town, including at Fabacher’s Restaurant, when a chance encounter on the levee changed music history. He stopped to listen to an African American man playing a guitar, and growing curious, Maggio asked the man what song he was playing, and he replied, “I got the blues.”
Maggio then went home and composed a song based on what he had heard—as he explained in an interview towards the end of his life in the 1950s—and he had not intended this as a serious composition, but nonetheless, it took off like wildfire in the city, becoming a favorite song requested by audiences in multiple venues. Led by curiosity, trusting his ear, and acting on instinct, Maggio made a contribution to perhaps the most significant musical idiom to emerge from the Deep South, the blues. The genesis of “I Got the Blues” encapsulates the long story of complex interactions between European and African American musicians, and by paying close attention to historical context, we can begin to understand how New Orleans has provided an environment where such interactions take place.
Shane Lief wrote his MA in Musicology thesis at Tulane University: “Staging New Orleans: The Contested Space of Congo Square.” He is currently at work on a PhD in Linguistics, focusing on multilingualism in New Orleans and how Native American, African, and European traditions have influenced the linguistic and musical landscape of the city. Read the full story in Vol. XXV of Jazz Archivist https://jazz.tulane.edu/jazz-archivist