Feminist discourse in the lives and works of American blueswomen of the 1920s

This essay is not concerned with how the blues came to be, its historical connections with African immigrants, or its roots in other music idioms. It is concerned with a genre of the blues that was confined to the 1920s and exclusive to (usually black) women – how society helped shape that genre, and in turn how its major artists became spokeswomen and helped shape society through their music.

Throughout the essay I will be referring to the lives, and to the texts and performances of the songs of specific blues women, as well as writings by women within the huge blues bibliography dominated by men. The blues women became icons to writers such as Daphne Duval Harrison (author of Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920’s) and Sandra Lieb (author of Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey), who consider them important because they demonstrated “the economic impact … on a major American industry and the evolution of the entertainment industry and its relationship to the development and promotion of the arts and artists” (Harrison, p.15).

Harrison claims one of the aims of her book is to “clarify the role of black women in American history” (p.15) – a history documented mostly by white males, so in itself “Black Pearls” is a feminist statement. Where better to begin looking for evidence of “feminist discourse” in the lives and works of the blues singers of the 1920s?

There were well over one hundred women blues singers performing at any one time during the 1920s, and the most famous included Mamie Smith, Sippie Wallace, Ida CoxMa Rainey and Bessie Smith, all from different backgrounds and therefore all stylistically different. Ma Rainey’s style was rural and southern compared to Bessie Smith’s mostly urban based themes and vocal technique. Ida Cox sang vaudeville and dancehall) while the more sophisticated singers such as Alberta Hunter and Edith Wilson were cabaret-trained.

Women’s blues have been traced back as early as the turn of the century, and even then were known to be sung by women who had some control over men – Jelly Roll Morton commented on how prostitutes singing the blues in brothels around 1902, and T Bone Walker remembered how his mother used to sing the blues when she was alone.

These early versions of the blues were probably a far cry from the commercially recorded songs of the 19205, but were no less influential. Women were important to the spread of men’s rural or country blues, since they were often forced to travel the country in search of work, taking into new areas a healthy tradition of local folksongs.

Another reason for the migration of women away from the South into northern cities may have been due to new pleasures that were frowned upon by local churches such as whiskey joints and dancehalls. They moved to the larger cities in search of the hedonism heard about in folksongs and early blues songs, without the guilt that religion would lay on them.

The reality was not as sweet though, and many blues women sang of the problems caused by excess alcohol and drugs, such as Bessie Smith’s famous “Gin Mill Blues”, Margaret Johnson’s “Dead Drunk Blues” and Victoria Spivey’s “Dope Head Blues”.

The young women who migrated to the cities at the age of 15 or 16 between 1915 and 1920 were the ones most Likely to become blues singers in the Twenties, and their first taste of the real world was in domestic jobs in kitchens or brothels, in contrast to the heavy labour of the men. Their experiences were therefore different and combined with cautionary tales from hardened women who were disillusioned by the cities and their men, these young girls grew up with a new consciousness that could help see them through the Twenties.

The words of the blues women were therefore not those of a southern black rural experience, they were sophisticated emotions, yet harsh and real in their delivery. When black women sang, they exorcised some of the feelings of rejection or sorrow they encountered in everyday Life, so it seemed only natural that they should sing the blues. Harrison wrote “Men mistreat the women that love them. Mistreating a woman may mean ignoring her, exploiting her sexually, taking her money, beating her, being unfaithful or abandoning her for no good reason, or (worst of all) another woman” (p.63).

Sandra Lieb agrees that their songs didn’t communicate historical details, but rather painted a picture of their everyday lives. Their Lyrics were an “essential truth about the black experience … poverty, suffering, heartbreak and pain (as well as humour, fortitude, strength and endurance)” (Lieb, p.82).

Women’s blues were therefore paradoxical in that “the very act and mode of articulation demonstrates a toughness that releases, exhilarates and renews. The blues singer evokes, matches and intensifies the “blue” feeling of the listener in the very act of singing the blues” ( Harrison, p.66). In fact, articulateness was one of the most highly regarded qualities amongst the highly oppressed black community, as was strength of character and perseverance, qualities that were all evident in women’s blues.

“The blues women expressed reality and enhanced the emotional impact of their experiences through the satire, irony and drama of their individual performance styles” ( Harrison, p.66). They therefore became icons of hope to downtrodden black women who realised that they had worked themselves out of similar hopeless situations.

They were given titles to show this respect – Ma Rainey became “The Mother Of The Blues” and Bessie Smith became “Queen Of The Blues” or “Empress Of The Blues”. The way that they dressed reinforced this image. They looked “regal in satins, laces, sequins and beads, and feather boas trailing from their bronze or peaches and-cream shoulders (and) wore tiaras that sparkled in the lights” (Harrison, p.222).

“Variations in their experiences were often reflected in their treatment of themes” ( Harrison, p.67).

So what did they sing about, and were there any common themes that suggested shared experiences?

Bessie Smith rarely sang politically-charged lyrics, racial or social issues were discussed in very little of her total recorded output. Edward Brookes states that there was political apathy amongst black Americans in the 1920s and early 30s (p.xvi) which is unusual considering that the Ku Klux Klan was at its strongest since the Reconstruction.

Was Bessie Smith’s lack of political lyrics a product of this apathy, or merely a Limitation imposed on her by white record company bosses? “Poor Man’s Blues” is one song in which her political voice is heard.

A protest song about social conditions, “Poor Man’s Blues” is full of metaphors, the “poor man” symbolising the black Americans, therefore the “rich man” by association symbolising whites. The lyrics condemn white Americans for a string of broken promises throughout their history, from slavery to the economic slavery of the Reconstruction, to the injustices of the First World War when black women lost factory jobs because white women refused to work with them, or when the men returned from the war to reclaim their posts.

From Bessie Smith’s “Poor Man’s Blues” – “If it wasn’t for the poor man, Mr. Rich Man what would you do?” The fact that the statement comes from a woman makes it seem even more bold and shocking, and was surely a boost to black consciousness.

Ma Rainey seemed specific about the themes of her songs. She ignored many major events in life such as “birth and motherhood, childhood and children, adolescence, family relations, old age (except for an occasional mocking reference) and formal religion or church affairs” (Lieb, p.81). These were all important parts of everyday life, yet Rainey chose not to sing about them, downplaying their importance by failing to acknowledge their existence, concentrating instead on things that really mattered to modern black American women – love and sex. These omissions are also true of men’s blues, but their absence seems more conspicuous in women’s blues since it seems a feminist statement in itself.

Read more about Ma Rainey at Wikipedia. Stream or download some of her recordings at the Internet Archive or listen below.

These classic blues singers concentrated on love as one of the major themes of their songs, and more often than not, the theme was bad or unhappy love. If the blues were a collective sorrow brought on by the mistreatment of blacks by whites, then women’s blues was sorrow and anger aimed at black men. Violence of different intensities should be considered when interpreting the love songs of the blues women. It is by now a common assumption of the women’s liberation movement that female depression is actually a state of anger turned against the self” (Lieb, p.82). The misery or depression characteristic of many blues songs was used by the blues women to their advantage, first allowing the listener to relate to and understand the pain and suffering, then suggesting an answer to the problem, from turning to drink or drugs, or refusing to feel depressed through to a “murderous rage” (Lieb, p.82) in the most extreme songs. Many of Ma Rainey’s songs display this trait, encouraging the woman to take revenge against the man who has mistreated her, e.g. from “Black Eye Blues” –

He beat miss Nancy ‘cross the head,
When she rose to her feet she said
“You low down alligator, just watch me, sooner or later
Gonna catch you with your britches down”

These lyrics suggest that the woman will stay with her man, possibly to lull him into a false sense of security only to strike when he leasts expects it, while making love to another woman for example.

The most violent songs seem to be the most extreme form of feminism and incite women to kill their men, such as Bessie Smith’s “Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair” (1927) –

“I stood there laughing over him while he wallowed and died”,

or Victoria Spivey, who sang of poisoning her husband in “Blood Hound Blues”.

Well, I poisoned my man, I put it in his drinking cup
Well it’s easy to go to jail, but lawd they sent me up.

Revenge through violence often leads to prison and some of the women’s blues songs are set behind bars, such as Clara Smith’s “Court House Blues”, Bessie Smith’s “Jail House Blues” and “Sing Sing Prison” and Chippie Hill’s “Worried Jailhouse Blues”. Bessie Smith was married unhappily for a number of years to Jack Gee, who used to beat her in drunken rages, and her experience was not unique, so however extreme the blues women’s lyrics were, they were understood by thousands of black American women.

Those women who didn’t turn to physical violence went beyond that, to a cynical understanding of men and therefore never allowed themselves to be hurt by men, choosing instead to throw the first punch. In Sippie Wallace’s “Up the Country Blues” the woman humiliates her man in public, encouraging others to do so, demonstrating how the blues were a positive form of retaliation and how “blues of this nature communicated to women listeners that they were members of a sisterhood that did not have to tolerate mistreatment” (Harrison, p.89). Answering back was one aspect of feminism that was encouraged not only by the blues women but by other artists as well. Black author Alice Walker had her female characters speaking out as a declamation of independence, using it to “produce strategic advances and to modify the man’s behaviour” (Rodger D. Abrahams – “Negotiating Respect: Patterns of Presentation Among Black Women”, quoted by Harrison, p.89).

Another way of humiliating men was to prove that a man wasn’t necessary for a healthy sexual relationship – the ultimate humiliation for many who are scared of homosexuality even today. In Alice Walker’s novel “The Color Purple”, the heroine Celie is raped by her father as a child, then by her husband later in life. Intercourse has no meaning for her until she meets Shug Avery, a blues singer who teaches her how to satisfy her own sexuality without men, and shows her that women know their own bodies better than men do. This idea was probably shared by the blues women of the 1920s, many of whom were bisexual or experienced homosexual relationships, such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, who sang about “mature, highly sexual women in contrast to the ingénues of most white popular music of the same period” (Lieb, p.82). From Ma Rainey’s “Prove It On Me Blues” –

Folks say I’m crooked
I want the world to know
They say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me


Went out last night with a crowd of my friends
They must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men

This is probably Rainey at her most assertive – she doesn’t care what the rest of the world believes since no-one can prove that she sleeps with a woman. She wants everyone to know about her sexual preferences, and this is a bold step forward for sexual equality, a trend that has followed in the late 1980s and early 90s, with sexual politics being grappled by Alison Moyet in her songs “Dorothy” and “Whispering Your Name” (1994) to the words

I’m trying hard to escape this constant pull towards ache
Why do you fight, Kathryn? Why do you fight?

from k. d. lang’s “The Mind Of Love” (1992) and The Communards” “There’s More To Love Than Boy Meets Girl” (1988) that echoes the words of Ma Rainey’s “Prove It On Me Blues”.

I would like to shout it from the highest mountain to tell the world I found love and what it means to me.
But all around there’s violence and laws to make me think again.

The lyrics and sexual politics of the blues women were therefore highly influential to generations of popular musicians. Daphne Duval Harrison mentions their obvious influence on female rappers of the late 1980s, who combated the sexism of the male-dominated rap world. Artists such as Queen Latifa and Me’Shelle are still challenging “traditional” female roles, as do Salt’n’Pepa with songs such as “None Of Yo” Business” (1994) that tackles prostitution, and “Tramp” (1988) about how men never get reputations as women do, no matter how often their advances.

The influence of the blues women on popular music was much more immediate though, their individual performance styles benefiting a number of contemporary and next generation artists. At the end of the 1910s female singers were trained through vaudeville or cabaret, and had the kind of clear vocal tones that would sit comfortably atop a light dance band playing jazzy numbers. Ma Rainey changed this tradition with her deep, gruff contralto voice, becoming one of the first major stars of the 1920s. Her voice was “sometimes softly moaning, sometimes a roaring shout, but always with an underlying seriousness and melancholy” (Oakley, p.92). Her style owed much to men’s rural blues and she performed with rural instruments long after she became famous – a jug, washboard, kazoo and banjo when she recorded with the Tub Jug Washboard Band. She undoubtedly, in return influenced any rural blues bands that continued performing after her fame.

The blues women of the 20s were the first singers to combine jazz and blues through vocal melody, with rhythmic and melodic improvisation that was mostly associated with instrumentalists. The most sophisticated singers such as Bessie Smith used their voices as instruments, often growling or sliding like trombones, or piercing and wailing like clarinets. Their unexpected word stresses, syncopated phrasing and unlimited improvisation and embellishments in repeated section undoubtedly led to the development of instrumental jazz of the following decade, possibly pioneered by the musicians who worked with the blues women in the 20s.

Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey worked with some of the best musicians, including Fletcher Henderson, and Louis Armstrong. The sessions that Bessie Smith recorded with Louis Armstrong on cornet in January 1925 are thought to contain some of the two’s finest work, and is considered by many to be the most important stage of Smith’s early career. Louis Armstrong was not yet the national celebrity he was going to become, and his Hot Five collaborations were at least ten months away, but he was already an excellent musician and learning from Smith as the sessions progressed. Edward Brookes says of “Reckless Blues” “much of the emotional pleasure from this performance derives from Louis” complete understanding of what Bessie is doing” and he says that some of Armstrong’s lines are “an exact translation of her technique to the cornet”, often comprising of “crying wails” (p.72).

Brookes considers Bessie Smith to be “the main, virtually the only link between the itinerant male rural self accompanying blues singers of the 1920s…and the female jazz singers of the 1930s. Though their voices were recognisably different, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday owed much to Bessie Smith in their approaches to performance, and occasionally to style, Smith’s characteristic minor 3rd slip and irregular phrasing techniques often employed by other singers. It could also be said that Janis Joplin owed much to Ma Rainey’s vocal aesthetic.

Ma Rainey became Paramount’s biggest selling artist in the early 1920s but wasn’t the only blues woman to succeed in the recording industry. The first recorded blues woman was Mamie Smith, who recorded “That Thing Called Love” and “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down” on February 14th 1920 at the Okeh studios, and released early in the summer as part of a series on General Phonograph. “That Thing Called Love” was a commercial success selling around 100,000 copies. The follow-up single “Crazy Blues” sold 75,000 copies in its first month of release, proving that women’s blues were commercially viable. Bessie Smith recorded a total of 159 songs during her recording career – a career that spanned only a third of her total singing life. Her vocal style was certainly mature by the time she recorded her first sessions at the age of 28, but to many critics she has become the standard by which all female vocalists have since been measured.

The impact of women’s blues on the entertainment industry was so huge that it not only improved the career of singers already performing on the vaudeville and cabaret circuits, whose records boosted ticket sales and vice versa; and also made national stars out of folk heroes such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, who had previously only achieved local celebrity due to touring limitations, but by adapting their repertoire to include non-blues songs, the blues women allowed opportunities and extra work for contemporary songwriters.

The recording industry meant that the blues was no longer an orally-transmitted folk idiom restricted to certain localities, but had now become a national phenomenon, the recordings becoming permanent pieces of history that could be looked back on and learned from – perhaps one of the goals of feminism, to change the future and to educate? The blues women became evidence that black women could be financially and sexually independent, creative, assertive, and most of all, influential.

Further reading