Blueswomen of the 1920S and 1930S
Blueswomen of the 1920s and 1930s
Bessie Smith (c. 1892–1937), Mamie Smith (1893–1946), and Gertrude "Ma" Rainey (1886–1939) are perhaps the most recognizable names of women blues singers of the 1920s. They were contemporaries, however, of approximately one hundred women who performed in vaudeville, stage shows, and small clubs and cabarets during that decade. Mamie Smith's second recording, "Crazy Blues" on General Phonograph's Okeh label, was an unexpected success in 1920 and spurred a rapid movement by record companies, songwriters, singers, and musicians to capitalize on women's blues. Black songwriters such as William C. Handy (1873–1958), Perry Bradford (1893–1970), and Clarence Williams (1898–1965) were pioneers in obtaining recording contracts for women singers. It is ironic, therefore, that the two most popular, experienced, and accomplished blues singers at that time—Bessie Smith and Rainey, who had developed their talent and repertoires on the vaudeville circuit in the first two decades of the twentieth century—were not recorded until 1923. Nevertheless, Mamie's fortuitous success led to twenty years of recordings, stage shows, and movies for dozens of women. Some of the women who left the traveling show circuits, cabarets, and nightclubs of the South, Southwest, and North to become the next "blues queen" on recordings had exceptional talent and ingenuity that they employed to enhance their performances on record and on stage. Others were mediocre talents, though their stylish gowns, physical attractiveness, and ability to entertain endeared them to audiences in the North and South. Many of these women were sent on tours with bands that included some of the most talented musicians of the day. Among these were stellar artists such as Louis Armstrong, Johnny Dunn, Sidney Bechet, Clarence Williams, Kid Ory, Johnny Dodds, Don Redman, Fletcher Henderson, Thomas Dorsey (who later became renown for his role in developing gospel music), and, notably, two women pianist-composers, Lovie Austin (1887–1972) and Lil Hardin (1898–1971).
During the 1920s, more than one hundred women were recorded on labels ranging from Okeh, the pioneer of women's blues recordings, to Paramount, Columbia, and small labels such as Charles Pace and William Handy's unsuccessful Swan Records. Blues were composed at an astonishing rate by Bradford, Handy, Clarence Williams, and some of the women singers, although comparatively few made multiple recordings or had careers that lasted several years. However, they established black women as essential to the recording industry. This array of talent included deep-voiced moaners, brassy shouters, and lilting light sopranos. Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Clara Smith (1894–1935), Sippie Wallace (1878–1986), Victoria Spivey (1906–1976), and Ida Cox (1886–1967) did not have beautiful or even pleasant voices (in the narrow aesthetic sense), but they represented the voices of the folk roots that nurtured them. All of their recordings are earthy, and many were confrontational on issues of infidelity, poverty, racism, mistreatment by lovers, aesthetics of physical beauty, desertion, natural disasters, and sometimes the supernatural.
Although many of the blues recorded in the 1920s and 1930s were written by men, both black and white, most of the women had performed in local venues where they grew up or lived before going on the vaudeville circuit. Therefore, some of their experiences contributed to their blues creations. Sippie Thomas Wallace, Victoria Spivey, and Ma Rainey were "making" their own blues in their early teens at house parties, picnics, or local clubs. Even as preteens, Wallace and Spivey played piano at picnics and house parties in Texas. Wallace's family was evidently quite musical and included her brothers—the bandleader and composer George and the talented pianist Hersal. According to Spivey, her father, Grant, played a stringed instrument. She taught herself to play piano and gained experience playing for silent movies in Dallas, Texas, but her blues training came at parties or picnics playing with blues men such as "Blind Lemon" Jefferson (1897–1929). Later, as a song transcriber in Missouri, Spivey developed her songwriting skills and eventually became a prolific composer of blues. Her lyrics were often scathing in their attack on the racial injustice and poverty that blacks suffered. She and Ida Cox also incorporated superstition in their lyrics.
Many of the blues written by women tended to deal with two-timing men, loss of control over their lives, and traveling away from a bad relationship or loneliness. However, violence, prostitution, fear, retribution, disease, and poor health, as well as natural disasters, were sung about. For example, Spivey's "T. B. Blues" laments deaths caused by the dreaded disease tuberculosis, which plagued poor people, and in other songs she comments on the squalor of the New York prison known as "the Tombs." She openly addressed "dope" as a ravaging menace spreading failure and crime in New York. Consequently, the listener has to listen closely to the lyrics, not just the music or the beat, in order to understand the gravity, desperation, threat, advice, or sheer sensuality and delight that are often couched in metaphors or folk language. Cox seemed to be particularly concerned with death, the supernatural and most convincingly with poverty and suffering as in songs such as "Death Letter Blues," "Mojo Hand Blues," "Hard Times Blues," and "Pink Slip Blues." Her traveling show, the "Raisin' Cain" revue, was so popular that it was the first show to open at the Apollo in 1929. She was one of the few "blues queens" to continue performing into the 1930s, playing with her pianist-bandleader husband, Jesse Crump.
Towards the end of the 1920s, the approaching Depression took its toll on blacks who were already at the low end of the economic scale, and women's blues began to address the injustices that their people confronted. Although the "classic blues" era supposedly ended by 1930, many of the women continued to perform in theaters and clubs in the South and North.
Recordings by country-style singers illustrate the significant differences in voice quality and vocal styling that distinguished them from their "classic" counterparts. They came from the Mississippi Delta, Alabama, Texas, Kansas, and other areas. The majority of their recordings were made between 1926 and 1937. Among them were singers who had less fame than the Smiths or Cox or Rainey, but they endured and adapted to the changing demands of the market, advances in recording technology, and radio. Lucille Bogan (1897–1948, aka Bessie Jackson) was a prime example of the "country style" singer who demonstrated that timing, phrasing, and a choice selection of subject matter could overcome limited vocal talent. Although she began recording around 1923, she continued performing and recording until the mid-1930s. She seldom strayed from her dry, down-home style, whether she was singing "Women Won't Need No Men" or "B. D. Woman's Blues." Both of these blues imply that women can fare as well without men as with them. The lyrics of the former assert that "there'll come a time [when] women ain't gonna need no men" to take care of their physical or sexual needs, but it is ambiguous enough to consider it a call for women's liberation. The latter is a bold interpretation of a blues about homosexual women that Rainey recorded in the early 1920s. Other country-style singers were Pearl Dickson, Lottie Kimbrough, and Bobby Cadillac.
One of the most gifted of the country blues women at the turn of the decade was Minnie Douglas (1897–1973), later known as Memphis Minnie. According to her biographers Paul and Beth Garon, Minnie's guitar-playing talent surpassed that of most men during the 1930s, but, surprisingly, she was not rare among southern women musicians in her choice of instrument. Memphis Minnie began playing banjo in her preteens and switched to the guitar in the 1920s. Her earliest recordings were made in Chicago with her first husband, "Kansas" Joe McCoy, with
Minnie playing lead guitar parts that she composed. She constantly revised her "Bumblebee Blues," because her fans insisted on it at every performance ("bee" was a metaphor for sexual performance).
Trixie Smith (1895–1943), who recorded several "railroad" blues in the 1920s, had a dry vocal style that became richer as she matured. Her 1938 rendition of "My Daddy Rocks Me," backed by Charlie Shavers, Sidney Bechet, Sammy Price, and others, is illustrative of the transformation of a simple blues into a fine jazz piece. This period afforded some of the "classic blues singers" an opportunity to break from the old blues formula and to become more creative and improvisatory. Likewise, Cox's 1939 reprise of one of her most popular blues, "Four Day Creep," with Sammy Price's swinging piano ensemble giving it a touch of quiet melancholy, was totally different from the slow-paced 1920s version.
Though less known and celebrated, Bertha "Chippie" Hill (1900–1950) was a blues shouter in the style of the 1920s singers Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Clara Smith. She also followed the vaudeville trail to New York, but ended up singing in whiskey joints and small clubs. Her first recording was on the Okeh label in 1925. However, her best output was in the late 1930s and early 1940s as a mature performer. "Trouble in Mind" and "Lonesome Road" demonstrated her superb musicianship.
Historically, the most stunning set of 1930s blues was not performed on stage or recorded in a studio, but rather on location at the infamous Parchman Farm, a notoriously brutal penitentiary in Mississippi. The ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax (1915–2002) captured the voices of incarcerated women who sang about forced labor, sex, unwanted pregnancies, and party games. These blues are probably the most authentic in the rawest sense. They speak of life as it was lived, not as imagined by some of the singers, composers, or musicians who became famous on various records or stages.
The blues women of the 1920s and 1930s sang, played, and wrote about life as they experienced it or as they imagined it could be, and they left a rich legacy of variety, comedy, pathos, and sheer musical joy.
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daphne d. harrison (2005)
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