Feminism and Classic Blues


Because blues is
such a heavily male dominated musical genre, it’s often forgotten that the first
popular blues recording stars were women. During the 1920s when the emerging recording
industry first realized the commercial potential of blues, women so dominated recorded
blues that the popular image of a blues singer was a big-voiced black woman, draped in
wraps, feathers, and long flowing gown, belting out her sorrows and triumphs over
sophisticated vaudeville jazz.

In the early part
of the 20th century, many blues forms were on the rise in Texas, the Mississippi Delta,
New Orleans, and other regions of the South. But with early recording companies largely
based in New York City, industry awareness and taste tended toward more urban sounds.
Given these conditions, the phenomenal success of Mamie Smith’s recording of “Crazy
Blues” in 1920 opened the doors to the country’s first blues boom. Now
considered the first commercial blues recording, “Crazy Blues” sold a remarkable
75,000 copies within the first month of its release, paving the way for a steady stream of
hits by numerous other blueswomen including Ethel Waters, Lucille Hegamin, Trixie Smith,
Ida Cox, Sippie Wallace, Victoria Spivey, Lucille Bogan, and Alberta Hunter.

To the ears of a
contemporary blues listener, Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” and any number of
other hits from the 1920s may seem more akin to Broadway show tunes than blues. Others may
hear “classic blues,” as the style has come to be known, as a sound closer to
jazz than blues. Since the classic women blues singers were usually backed by small combos
featuring piano and horns played by some of the era’s greatest jazz musicians (Louis
Armstrong, Duke Ellington, King Oliver, Fletcher Henderson, and Coleman Hawkins to mention
a few), the classic style is rich in harmonic sophistication and melodic nuances
associated with jazz. Still, in its vocal phrasing, subject matter, and 12-bar form, this
music is blues. With the enormous commercial success of the early women blues singers, the
classic style made an indelible imprint on all forms of blues.

In the liner notes
to the CD compilation Blues Masters Volume II: Classic Blues Women (Rhino), blues
scholar Samuel Charters explains: “Even the men living in the South and playing the
blues for themselves and their neighbors learned many of their songs from the records that
made their way down to local music stores or came through the post office from the
mail-order blues companies in Chicago. If they didn’t learn the songs themselves,
they learned the form and the style of what the record companies thought of as the blues.
So when the companies sent scouts to find new artists in the South, what they found were
the same three or four ways of putting blues verses together…the 12-bar harmonic form on
the records had become so ubiquitous that even the Delta players who only fingered a
single chord on their guitars managed to suggest all the usual chord changes with their

For all its wide
impact, however, the era of classic blues was short lived. In the mid-1920s as record
companies initiated the southern recording trips that “discovered” rural blues,
the hegemony of blueswomen began to ebb. The Depression accelerated this trend with the
music industry making fewer records and exploitation of the “race market” no
longer deemed a priority. New urban African American sounds of uptempo big bands were also
catching on and the black vaudeville/theater circuit that once sustained classic blues
performers was in decline. By the late 1920s, the craze for female blues was clearly over.
Through the 1930s blueswomen became less and less visible. By the 1940s blues music was
almost exclusively a male expression and never again would the black female point of view
be so widely represented in blues.

In her recent book Blues
Legacies And Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie
(Pantheon), Angela Y. Davis is concerned with reappreciating the rich musical
and cultural legacy of classic blues through analysis of the music of three legendary
singers. Davis, a long-time political activist and now a professor at the University of
California at Santa Cruz, is not, however, interested in musicology or biography. Her
focus in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism is on how the recorded performances of
women blues singers of the classic era “illuminate the politics of gender and
sexuality in black working class communities.” No doubt surprising to those who hear
in women’s blues only victimization, decadence, and despair, what she finds is “an
emergent feminist consciousness” revealing “that black women of that era were
acknowledging and addressing issues central to contemporary feminist discourse.”

Blues historians
and critics (who are mostly white and male) have not been entirely blind to the female
perspective in blues. Women’s particular slant on sex, infidelity, alcohol, poverty,
violence, love, and loneliness gets some recognition in nearly all studies of blues
history or the lives of individual blues artists. But, Davis argues, because these
accounts of blues and “the black experience” are implicitly “gendered male,”
the messages the blues holds for black women have been ignored.

The other obstacle
obscuring the feminist currents in blues, according to Davis, is class. Certainly, in the
first half of the 20th century most white Americans viewed blues as a crude and vulgar
expression of an inferior people. But as an expression of black working class life, women’s
blues, argues Davis, was also looked down upon by an emerging black middle class. To
respectable black society blues was “low culture,” “the devil’s music,”
and in Davis’s words, a cultural space where “the coercions of bourgeois notions
of sexual purity and ‘true womanhood’ were absent.”

In support of these
arguments, Davis relies heavily on the song lyrics sung by the two singers who defined the
era of classic blues—Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, and another, Billie Holiday, whose
profound translations of Tin Pan Alley pop linked modern jazz with the themes and feelings
of classic blues. In the case of Rainey and Smith, Davis transcribed the words to all
their available recordings (252 songs, all included in the book) and these texts are
offered and analyzed as primary evidence of her case. Regarding Holiday, whose recordings
are not transcribed, Davis writes that because “her originality consists not so much
in what she sang, but rather how she sang” the meaning of her material goes beyond
the lyrics. Accordingly, when offering analysis of Holiday’s songs, Davis spends most
of her time interpreting the subtext she hears in the singing and musical backing.

Those familiar with
the music of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, as well as readers encountering their lyrics for
the first time on the printed page, shouldn’t need a lot of intellectual persuasion
to see the outrageous sexual politics of classic blues. Explicitly stated desire,
swaggering toughness, casual sex, homosexuality, and violence pervade the tradition. But
what does all this “down and dirty” have to do with feminism? What about all the
pain, abuse, and grief that are also part of the music?

Davis admits that
it would be absurd to project a feminist consciousness as we think of it today on the
women blues singers of the 1920s and 1930s. She also recognizes that the lives and music
of Rainey, Smith, and Holiday present contradictions to the case she is trying to make.
Nonetheless, in the bodies of work of these women, Davis finds images of “tough,
resilient, and independent women” challenging the stereotypes and contradictions of
traditional gender politics, while also articulating social conditions of class
exploitation and racism. To Davis, the songs of the early blues women are “historical
preparation for political protest.”

To help readers
grasp the social implications of classic blues, Davis begins Blues Legacies And Black
with a discussion of the new realities of African American life in the
decades immediately following the abolition of slavery. Observing that under slavery black
men and women worked at the same jobs which encouraged “a distorted form of gender
equality,” she argues that after emancipation masses of black men and women had their
first opportunity to choose sexual relationships, although within economic and political
constraints that did not encourage the “proper” morality of the dominant white
culture or the new black middle class. Developing within this context, the blues emerged
at the turn of the century as “aesthetic evidence” of the changed social and
sexual conditions of post-slavery African America.

Returning to the
lives and music of blues women for proof of these changes, Davis maintains that Ma Rainey
and Bessie Smith, as well as other singers of the classic era, lived as wildly and
independently as men. Both Rainey and Smith, she reports, were known for their hearty
sexual appetites and, in Rainey’s case, sexual involvement with women was closeted in
neither life nor song (“Prove It On Me Blues”). In their drinking,
aggressiveness, dancing, and general hell-raising, Rainey and Smith also defied
conventional expectations of female decency.

But it is in the
blues legacies of Rainey and Smith that Davis finds the singers strongest assertions of
sexual equality. In their recorded work, Rainey and Smith express comfort with their
bodies and sexual desires, freedom from traditional bonds of marriage and motherhood, and
a hard-nosed realism about male-female relations. Also, contrary to popular notions, few
of these blues portray women emotionally overwhelmed by cheating, abusive, deserting
lovers. The vast majority of Ma Rainey’s songs show women behaving as freely and
sometimes as badly as men. Although the bulk of Bessie Smith’s songs describe
unstable relationships, the singer’s usual response is not incapacitating despair.
Quite the opposite, the women in these songs remain strong-willed and forward looking,
though at times this stance includes threats of violent revenge. A few samples:

Papa like his
sherry, mama likes her port Papa likes to shimmy, mama likes to sport Papa likes his
bourbon, mama likes her gin Papa like his outside women, mama likes her outside men.

House Blues”

Was a time when you
could have walked right in and called this place your home sweet home But now it’s
all mine for all time, I’m free and livin’ all alone

Jones Blues”

What’s the
matter, hard papa, come on and save your mama’s soul ‘Cause I need a little
sugar in my bowl, doggone it I need some sugar in my bowl

— “Need A
Little Sugar In My Bowl”

I done polished up
my pistol, my razor’s sharpened too He’ll think the world done fell on him when
my dirty work is through.

Graveyard Words”

The absence of
romanticized images of love and marriage in blues has been related by many blues
historians to the brutal realities of racism and poverty. But there is also a strong
tendency among critics and scholars to resist seeing the blues as social protest. Samuel
Charters, Paul Oliver, and Peter Guarlnick, to mention a few authorities, claim that
protest songs, meaning tunes that address a social problem directly and with the aim of
stirring political action, are an insignificant dimension of the blues tradition.

But, as Davis
points out, blues storytelling employs irony, metaphors, satire, humor, and double
entendres, as well as nuances in singing and playing, that often escape a literal
interpretation of the lyrics. Further, even when historical possibilities for social
change were limited, blues, by describing and resonating the raw truth of everyday black
life, could cry out against oppression.

This perspective,
of course, offers a direct challenge to those who see the blues as apolitical. But it is
also a point of view in opposition to listeners who hear the blues as acquiescent to
oppression. Classic women’s blues, as a prime example, is often heard as tolerating
male violence. “Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do,” a song recorded by
Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, is well known for the painful lines:

Well, I’d
rather my man would hit me than to jump right up and quit me ‘Taint nobody’s
bizness if I do, do, do, do I swear I won’t call no copper if I’m beat up by my
papa ‘Tain’t nobody’s bizness if I do, if I do

Rather than simply
hearing this song as accepting female masochism, however, Davis finds Smith and Holiday
violating the taboo on publicly acknowledging domestic violence and thereby making this
pervasive, but secret, social reality available for discussion and criticism. She offers
many other explicit references to physical abuse in the work of Smith and Rainey to show
how the classic blues singers dragged the problem of male violence into the light by
making the most of one of the few public spaces open to women. Again she makes the point
that songs depicting battering, even ones that don’t seem critical, occur within an
overall body of work that affirms women’s rights to live as they please.

The recordings of
jazz vocalist Billie Holiday, while not presenting many examples of pure blues, remain
emotionally and musically tied to the blues tradition. Despite the fact that the lyrics of
her songs paint superficial, sentimental portraits of love that were in every way typical
of white popular songs of the 1930s and 1940s, Holiday’s evocative, blues-rooted
singing gave her material distinction and enduring appeal. Today, for her command of
phrasing, tone, rhythm, melody, and lyric, Billie Holiday is considered by many to be the
greatest jazz singer of all time. Unfortunately, this musical legacy is clouded by myth,
drug abuse, and destructive relationships with men. With the exception of her
anti-lynching protest “Strange Fruit,” her work is also seldom discussed as

Davis hears in
Holiday’s art what she terms “open-ended interrogations” of love,
sexuality, individuality, and freedom. Through Holiday’s interpretations, Davis
contends, the most vapid songs yield subversive insights into the highs and lows of
romance and its unexamined inequality. Backing up her view with the words to seemingly
anti-feminist songs such as “My Man:” All my life is just despair/But I don’t
care/When he takes me in his arms/The world is bright, all right”) and “When A
Woman Loves A Man” (“She’ll be the first one to praise him when he’s
going strong/The last one to blame him when everything’s wrong/It’s such a
one-sided game that they play/But women are funny that way”), she maintains that the
ironic edge of Holiday’s performance on these tunes offered women a critical window
into the contradictions of their lives.

While I find this
understanding of Holiday’s music convincing, there are so many non-literal cues to
read in her performances, it is easy to see why many listeners draw opposite or ambivalent
conclusions. Since the 1960s, many feminists have heard “My Man,” and other
Holiday recordings, as uncritical sketches of pathetic passivity. Many jazz enthusiasts
hear in her songs only the timeless, universal vagaries of romantic love. To others the
music of Lady Day is tragic autobiography. Even those inclined to agree with Davis are
likely to argue about the meanings she attributes to some songs or lines.

The biggest
resistance to Davis’s interpretation of Holiday and classic blues comes from music
critics and fans who want to keep politics, especially radical politics, out of art and
entertainment. On the release of Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, blues historian
Francis Davis, reviewing in the New York Times Book Review (March 8, 1998), accuses
Davis of reducing classic blues “to an early form of feminist consciousness-raising”
and Holiday’s ballads to “a variety of private racespeak.” Instead of all
this multicultural “exclusionary mumbo jumbo,” Francis Davis advocates analysis
that sees “a form of music worthy of explication on its own terms.”

Assertions of
blackness and protest in essentially African American defined musical forms such as blues
and jazz have long provoked similar objections. In the days of slavery, drums, being the
primary instrument of West Africans, were banned by slave owners fearing the potential for
subversive communication. In response African American musical traditions evolved codes of
language and sound that could not be easily deciphered by white masters. Ever since, black
music, in its many forms and genres, has found ways “to speak the unspeakable”
through inventive, revelatory language. Unfortunately, at the end of the 20th century, the
possibility of music holding hidden or special meanings for black Americans still seems
particularly threatening.

With regard to Blues
Legacies And Black Feminism
most of the protest gathered and discussed by Davis seems
pretty upfront. Alongside its challenges to male dominance, the recorded work of Gertrude
Rainey and Bessie Smith is loaded with references to other oppressive social conditions in
the black community. Occasionally these realities are overtly denounced. Yet, most of the
time, classic blues delivers an implicit social critique through directly stated,
unadorned realism.

This reporting of
the harshness of black life has, in fact, been so prominent in blues that many listeners,
especially those whose tastes have been nurtured by dominant modes of entertainment, hear
in the tradition mostly anguish and suffering. But, as Davis knows, people sing the blues
in order to drive the blues away. The woes of life (poverty, the criminal justice system,
prostitution, homelessness, etc.) are described both as a means of affirming the
experience of the community and as a way of signifying problems to survive and overcome.
Yet, in the end, blues is an invitation to physical and emotional release. The sounds are
sensual, raucous, and triumphant.

If this kind of
protest is not in your face enough for everyone to get it, it is quite another thing to
deny its critical presence in the lives of African Americans altogether. Given the fact
that so many well known black writers, scholars, and musicians (Duke Ellington, Langston
Hughes, Toni Morrison, Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis, Etta James, Cassandra Wilson, Cornel
West, to mention a few) have also made statements about the black codes residing in blues
and jazz, Davis’s thesis is not entirely new or original. Outside the circles of
intellectuals and artists, many hard core blues fans have also come to like-minded
insights into the politics of the blues.

But in excavating
the neglected legacies of three remarkable black women, and by arguing their “feminist”
protests so forcefully and thoroughly, Davis has violated the same taboos as her subjects.
At different points in the history of blues and jazz, the music has been embraced by
politically oriented music fans as a mode of dissent from the dominant culture. Even in
times of popular social and political unrest such as the 1960s, however, many listeners
have continued to hear these sounds as unenlightened or “just music.” In the
more conservative climate of the late 1990s, the hidden politics of blues and jazz seem
particularly well hidden from most of the music’s audience. Needless to say, it’s
going to take something more than a book to change that.

Those inclined to
follow Davis as she digs beneath the surface of classic blues will be well rewarded. In
giving the words of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday the serious attention and
historical context they deserve, she redeems a critical aesthetic, making it fresh,
disturbing, and still socially relevant.