Thanks to Owen Thomas for editing, but also for offering thoughts on grief and protest that shifted this piece into something much more meaningful and relevant than it was before.
Though I’d been meaning to write about early Black Feminist musicians for a while now, this seems like an especially crucial moment to discuss their legacy and what that legacy means today, given the worldwide protests of George Floyd’s murder. The entire world is celebrating, mourning, championing, and defending Black American lives. In all areas, the conversation is shifting to center Black politicians, artists, and musicians: their struggles, their contributions, their leadership. As a Jazz musician, a brass musician, and an American musician, I owe much to American Blues, which inherently means that I owe a lot to Black women. Wanting to know more about them and this vein of music, I started reading Blues Legacies and Black Feminism by Angela Y. Davis (if you want to buy it, try and get it from a Black-owned bookstore). Much of the following was learned from and inspired by her book.
Jazz, Rock, Funk, R&B, Hip Hop, Rap – these innovations of American music, of Black American music, rest on the foundation of the Blues and Spirituals sung on slave plantations. Traditionally, the Blues are seen as Black man’s music, and women’s part in it has been eclipsed. This is a shame, because as Davis shows, women like Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith were the first singers of the Blues to be signed onto records that sold massively to the public, while Billie Holiday is widely regarded as the vocalist that brought the Blues-to-Jazz transition to the mainstream. Thanks largely to Davis’s scholarship, the historical narrative of this music is gradually broadening to credit these ancestors of the Blues.
These women were superstars, achieving fame and fortune in pioneering a style of music at a time when they faced immense repression and stigma for both their gender and skin color. After releasing “Down Hearted Blues” in 1923, her first recording, Bessie Smith sold millions of records and made hundreds of thousands of dollars, leading many to view her as the “World’s Greatest Blues Singer” and “the first real ‘superstar’ in African-American popular culture” (Davis, p. 141).” She worked with Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Fletcher Henderson, and countless other notable musicians of the time. This earned her the title “Empress of the Blues.” Gertrude “Ma” Rainey – the “Mother of the Blues” and older than Smith by more than a decade – had already become a star by the time they met in 1912. Smith was only 14 years old, but “Ma” took her on and became her mentor. By 1923, Bessie Smith’s career started surpassing Rainey’s, as she captivated audiences in both the North and South and even became tied into the Harlem Renaissance art and literary scene – described in Davis’s chapter on this part of Black history (p. 139). A brief biography of Rainey’s and Smith’s relationship and how their careers intersected can be found here.
But beyond fame and financial success, these women were also just badass in every way. Bessie Smith once scared off KKK members trying to disrupt her tent performance. Notified about their disruption, she “immediately left the tent and ran toward the intruders, stopped within ten feet of them, placed one hand on her hip, and shook a clenched fist at the Klansmen. ‘What the fuck you think you’re doin’,’ she shouted above the sound of the band, ‘I’ll get the whole damn tent out here if I have to. You just pick up them sheets and run!'” And they ran (p. 37). And “Ma” Rainey flaunted her lesbianism – in the 1920s. That’s wild. During Jim Crow laws, during an era where women faced much more stigma than they do today (and they still do today), an era where homophobia was rampant and persecuted everywhere, “Ma” Rainey released a flyer that showed her wearing men’s attire and flirting with women (Davis, p. 39). The flyer was an advertisement for “Prove It on Me Blues,” a song with lyrics all about seducing women and dodging legal repercussions for it. And both Rainey and Smith were notorious for singing explicitly about their sexual relations with men, as well.
Perhaps most importantly, the lyrics in these songs and the popularity of the music fostered a Black working class women’s consciousness, one that laid the foundation for later waves of Feminism and protest in the United States. But they did so in a way that was markedly different from middle-class Black women of the same era. The middle-class, educated, often Protestant women of the Black Women’s club movement were notably focused on raising their poor sisters’ “moral integrity” and “sexual purity,” an attempt to challenge the racist hyper-sexualization of Black women coming from the dominant culture. They held an ideal of “true womanhood” that actually excluded many Black women in working class and poor communities. In upholding this standard, they believed they were lifting up Black women everywhere. But, as Davis writes, “in the process of defending black women’s moral integrity and sexual purity, they almost entirely denied sexual agency.” As she emphasizes earlier in the book, “sexuality was one of the few realms in which masses of African-American women could exercise autonomy – and thus tangibly distinguish their contemporary status from the history of enslavement. Denial of sexual agency was in an important respect the denial of freedom for working-class black women (p. 44).” Rainey’s and Smith’s Blues were filled with sexual, erotic, and simply realist lyrics about sex and relationships, both heteronormative and queer. And they weren’t depicting romanticized fantasies evident in white popular music of the era, either: they shared relatable complaints and grievances, of domestic abuse or abandonment. Many of their problems were rooted in forces arising from a history of slavery, physically and economically violent forces that placed strain on personal relationships.They also shared notions of desire and bravely searching for love in a nation that often treated Black bodies as less than human. By not shying away from the real hardships and triumphs of love and sex in their lyrics, “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith opened up discourses of shared experience in the Black community and honored lived Black experiences through naming them.
The Blues is at once a way of naming struggle while exorcising it. It names in lyric the countless problems oppressing the Black community, and alleviates emotional pain from these struggles through song. It is shared, collective struggle that resonates with individuals through personal experience and feeling. This feeling was captured in Black art, but can be felt through various struggles. For me, personally, it is anytime you feel pain on the level of heartbreak that you intuitively know is rooted in forces much bigger than yourself. It’s when you or somebody you love is suffering economically, mentally, or physically as a symptom of capitalism, colonialism, or white supremacy; or when you or somebody you love hurts or abandons others due to these same forces. It’s the weight of macro-experience distilled into the personal, the same meaning behind the Feminist mantra “the personal is the political.”
In raising consciousness on these systemic issues through the personal lyrics of the Blues, this art-form encourages (though does not directly incite) the type of protest we are witnessing right now through the George Floyd uprisings. Davis writes a lot about the Dogon practice of Nommo, originating from Mali in Africa. In this practice, naming your problems helps to diminish their power. In naming or “counting” the Blues, Davis argues that a public consciousness forms around them, and they are easier to tackle as a community. This forms the foundation of organized protest (see a representative list of “counted Blues” at the end). As Davis writes, “in order for protest to acquire an explicitly political character, there must be an organized political structure capable of functioning as a channel for transforming individual complaint into effective collective protest. At the same time, social protest can never be made the exclusive or limiting function of art. Art may encourage a critical attitude and urge its audience to challenge social conditions, but it cannot establish the terrain of protest by itself. In the absence of a popular mass movement, it can only encourage a critical attitude. When the blues “name” the problems the community wants to overcome, they help create the emotional conditions for protest, but do not and could not, of themselves, constitute social protest (Davis, p. 113).
I believe the vitality of the George Floyd protests today is rooted in consciousness-forming that has taken more than a century to develop, owed in part to Blues singers such as Bessie Smith and “Ma” Rainey, and later Billie Holiday. But I also think that the Blues – and all the Hip Hop, Rap, R&B, Pop, Rock, and Funk songs, old and new, that inherit from the Blues – have an active role in the protests today besides laying the emotional conditions necessary for protests. This is music that heals as it clarifies. This is music that can create space to sing about and feel emotional pain, helping to alleviate that pain; to take its energy and make something beautiful out of it. This is music that helps us to tap into grief surrounding the fact that our lives carry worth but our society treats us as less than human. And though Black people are among the worst treated in the United States, everybody suffers when incarceration is prioritized over education; when we care more about putting people into prisons than placing people in homes; when some of us are lacking healthcare (especially during a pandemic); when most of us are lacking mental healthcare; and when violence is met with violence rather than compassion, understanding, and support. There is a need to mourn collective loss when it can no longer be contained within individuals. I’ve been seeing and hearing about it all week: the altar built by the clock tower in Santa Cruz, the makeshift memorial for Black Lives Matter affixed to Trump’s barricade in Washington, DC, and the funeral held for George Floyd on Tuesday, which the New York Times called “a moment of both national reckoning and mourning.” I especially felt it during the recent memorial for Sean Monterrosa, a San Francisco Mission native who was shot by police while kneeling with his hands in the air, and who’s last text to his family was to ask them to sign a petition demanding justice for George Floyd. I didn’t know it was a memorial when I first arrived, but I knew without being told when I heard the drummers and later saw the dancers with the Latina Task Force. There was just a heaviness that couldn’t be attributed to a political rally, or even a distant killing. That’s something amazing that music can do that I’ve felt many times but have had difficulty articulating in the past: it weighs you down and reminds you of your sorrow while also lifting it off of you and giving you joy.
The Blues is our national heritage, but it belongs to Black people first and foremost, and it particularly owes so much to the Black women who carried it to the national stage. I sincerely wish I could hear the music they would make today if they could witness what is happening in our country right now.
Smith counted a wide range of Blues that the Black community faced together. Davis recounts some of these on page 143 of her book:
- “‘Washwomen’s Blues’ for the millions of women condemned to jobs involving domestic drudgery”
- “‘House Rent Blues’ for all those familiar with the monthly ritual of scraping together pennies to pay the landlord”
- “‘Jail House Blues’ acknowledged the inevitability of the prison experience in virtually every household of the black community”
- “‘Backwater Blues’ was for those whose socially inflicted destitution was tragically compounded by floods and other natural disasters,” grimly foreshadowing the disaster of Hurricane Katrina
- “And ‘Poor Man’s Blues’ for all those who could be prodded to reflect upon the roots of their myriad pains of poverty’