This article appears in the May/June “Blue Issue,” now available on newsstands.
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What I know about the old blues women, I learned from the streets of New Orleans, the music from my record player, and the book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism by Angela Davis. That book shined a light on a group of women who helped establish one of America’s most iconic musical forms.
I first encountered the book (now a bible of sorts) when I was 18 and singing the blues on the streets of New Orleans and across the country with my hobo band The Dead Man Street Orchestra. Amelia Jackie (of The Molasses Gospel), who introduced me to certain principles of feminism, gave me her copy. Many of the book’s ideas were new to me, but I was familiar with the work of Bessie Smith and Gertrude “Ma” Rainey. Angela Davis taught me how these women were truly feminist and innovative.
I believe the blues women foreshadowed a movement of feminists of color that is vibrantly alive today. For those of us who feel our histories have been rewritten, and not in our own language, hearing these songs is life changing.
As a hard luck young woman – no money, no family around, little formal education, and a dream to become an artist– this music spoke to me. These women spoke to me, and helped reshape my future. I felt in tune with these blues women, leaving behind the embarrassing and soul crushing caricatures of women of color that I was fed my whole life.
I chose Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith as my feminist folk heroes. Rainey’s traveling show hired Smith, the future “Empress of the Blues,” and when Rainey was later arrested for having an all female party-turned-orgy, Smith bailed her out of jail. Their relationship inspired me and other female musicians to live as the blues women: boldly, with acknowledgement to our sisterhood, respect to our creativity, and without apology to society. When we sing, we are women of our own design.
The first blues song hit the phonograph in 1920, sung by Mamie Smith. Reported to have sold 75,000 copies in its first month, “Crazy Blues” awoke something in the American people. From the work songs and religious music of the past emerged a style that touched a raw part of the human experience. As I learned from Angela Davis, the circumstances that cause the blues are often referred to as an “omnipresent” force, one that seems to be a part of an “insurmountable” system; as unyielding as rain or snow are the living conditions that cause “the blues.” But we know that the subtle (and sometimes vague) search for the cause of the blues has to do with censorship and covert language. It was white supremacy, sexism and economic oppression that built the house of the blues.
The blues women encouraged us to take our cultural contexts with us when we perform, acting on their complexities as artists. Many have referred to the blues as “life,” but it is important to remember that the “life” referred to within these songs is the experience of black people surviving in an America which had only recently abolished slavery. To be a blues woman was to live in the dangerous crossroads of cultural norms. Sharing songs focused on personal experiences was a feminist act. The secret world of female relations was brought into the public sphere. Though they sometimes speak of betrayal, these seem to express something much deeper: a heartbreak that all women share no matter how much we hurt each other.
The singer is often left with a choice between two extremes: struggle to exist independently in a society that oppresses you, or choose an abusive relationship for stability, taking a life of pain. In one line, she cannot live without him; in the next, she dismisses him. Listeners relate, but these relationships are painted as fatal and agonizing. Whether you believe this hidden warning is there, the blues women brought domestic abuse out into public. They challenged taboos and opened doors for future women to share their own stories. The power of the blues women was in the act of giving women the choice to control their own lives.
Already considered deviant for their music, some blues women were also queer. Robert Philipson’s documentary T’aint Nobody’s Bizness If I Do tells a queer blues history that may otherwise have been lost. For some, queerness was public, like Ma Rainey’s “Prove It On Me” about her orgy and subsequent arrest. For others, it was implied, like Gladys Bentley, a “Bull Dagger” in a white tuxedo. And for some, their queer lives were kept private, such as lesbians Alberta Hunter and Ethel Waters and the bisexual Bessie Smith. For the blues woman, sexual satisfaction was her right, a recurring theme in today’s popular music sung by women. Freedom from shame and acknowledgement of female desire was another great source of power for the blues woman.
The blues women expressed great power through their own music, defying a world of boundaries and oppression. Their troubles were no mere performance; many died poor, cheated out of royalties and lying in unmarked graves. Bessie Smith, “the Empress” herself did so – until Janis Joplin bought her a tombstone. These ends may sound tragic, but they are as real as the songs they sang. Their music was never meant to shield our eyes from the harsh realities of a racist and sexist society. They were singing songs of the people and of the times, but they always did so with humor and pride. The blues women were willing to take all chances and fashion themselves in their own image – one full of power and danger. When queer black women recently introduced the phrase “Black Lives Matter” in the public lexicon, I could not help but think of the blues women of the 1920s and how they were trying to convey that same message then, through songs about everyday struggle that humanized and echoed the black experience. I hope as we reflect on the blues, we will recognize the struggle, pay homage to the work, and honor the incredible feminist legacy of the blues women.
Alynda Segarra is the frontwoman for ATO Records artist Hurray For The Riff Raff.