Slippin & Slidin

 Feminism and Classic Blues

By Sandy Carter


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 singing.”

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 Holiday (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 Feminism 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.

—“Barrel 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

—“Sam 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.

—“Them’s 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 “political.”

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.