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Smith as Pre-Cursors to Modern Feminism In 1920, Mamie Smith recorded and released the first blues record. The record, “Crazy Blues” sold 75,000 copies and was considered a huge success. This success opened the doors to other female blues artists. In an attempt to appeal to the African American demographic that bought “Crazy Blues,” record companies recorded hundreds of female blues records in the 1920’s (Davis xii). The success of women’s blues artists helped to transform blues music from a local tradition into a performing art and began to move black culture into the American mainstream (Miquel-Baldellou, 71). These artists included Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, the Mother of the Blues, and Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues. These records provide an insight into the lives of black women during this time. By examining the lyrics of these records in the context of their times, the audience can come to understand the feminist perspective of the 1920’s and see it’s influence upon the feminist perspective of today. Rainey and Smith rejected the classic middle class values on sexuality, marriage, domesticity and a women’s proper role in their songs and helped to influence the modern African American feminist perspective. In order to properly analyze the lyrics of these artists, it is necessary to understand their backgrounds. Ma Rainey was born Gertrude Pridgett in 1886 in Columbus, Georgia. In 1904, she married William “Pa” Rainey and the two toured tent shows throughout the
She recorded nearly 90 tracks for Paramount Records before retiring in 1935 and returning home to Columbus (Ma). even after leaving Columbia Records in 1931. and sexual desire (Miquel-Baldellou. In an analysis of blues songs by Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. American music of the time presented heterosexual. After separating from her husband in 1916.The similarities in these two women’s lives—the extensive traveling. she began performing in the same show as Ma Rainey and many believe Ma Rainey influenced her singing style. She added the songs to her repertoire and gained a following throughout the south. 72). she married Jack Gee in 1923. She ran away from home as a teenage and joined a traveling show as a dancer. Tennessee. Ma Rainey was known as a “shrewd business woman” who was professional both on and off stage. Ma Rainey formed her own band. and the man troubles—are reflected in the lyrics of their songs and contribute to the prevalence of feminist values in their songs. Ma Rainey recorded her first album for Paramount records. She was very successful and toured for the rest of her life. while blues songs often sang about bisexuality. extramarital relationships. In 1912. The record was a success and showcased Ma Rainey’s mature talent. After her first husband died. Bessie Smith was born in 1894 in Chattanooga. it becomes clear that the idea of love presented in these songs differs from the presentation and perception of love in other music of the time. Many . Ma Rainey heard and enjoyed country blues music. While touring the south. idealized and non-sexual relationships. the independence. Smith was married twice. and toured.south. Madam Gertrude Ma Rainey and Her Georgia Smart Sets. The marriage was an unhappy one and the two separated after only six years (Bessie). Bessie Smith signed to Columbia Records and released her first record in 1923. In 1923.
Davis explains: The representations of love and sexuality in women’s blues often blatantly contradicted mainstream ideological assumptions regarding women and being .” The songs also addressed and contradicted the middle class values and expectations placed on African American women. Songs like “Outside of That” and “Yes. the stopper’s in my hand. like Ma Rainey’s “Weeping Woman Blues” and Bessie Smith’s “Lookin’ for My Man Blues” address the problem of the absconded husband.female blues songs address heterosexual relationships but in a more realistic and less flattering light than other American music of the time.” She sings: Gee. in this song. Indeed He Do” by Ma Rainey address domestic violence (Davis. 30). Other songs. the woman does not simply accept that this poor treatment is unavoidable. Bessie Smith sings of heartbreak and wrongdoing by a man in her song “Down Hearted Blues. all mine Smith’s song addresses the idea that a woman can love a man who does not treat her right. However. The last verse of the song suggests that Smith will one day create a better situation as she sings “I got the world in a jug. heartbroken too I’ve got those down hearted blues Once I was crazy ‘bout a man He mistreated me all the time The next man I get has got to promise me The be mine. but it’s hard to love someone When they don’t love you I’m so disgusted. I’m gonna hold it until you men come under my command.
regardless of race or class.” Obviously. neither woman ever sang songs about being a mother (Davis 13). The contradiction of the classic understanding of love based relationships is also addressed in songs like “Lawd. but were incongruously applied to all women. Bessie Smith sings that she simply wants a man so she can “get her lovin’ all the time” in “Baby Doll. Considering that both Rainey and Smith suffered unhappy. In the song. (11) Smith and Rainey often contradict these ideas in their songs. Women were expected to marry and have their marriage as the center of the lives but both women recorded very few songs about marriage and the songs that were recorded generally spoke out against the institution (Davis. A review of the repertoire of songs by Smith and Rainey also reveals an explicit sexuality that is also present in blues songs by men. they are not particular about which man it is and they are not seeking a man to dominate or take care of them. This led to inevitable contradictions of between prevailing social expectations and black women’s social realities. failed marriages it is understandable that they would not sing songs encouraging marriage. While a woman of the time was expected to find her fulfillment in raising her children. 14). Such notions were based on the social realities of middle-class white women’s lives. In Blues Legacies and Black . Rainey wonders who will pay her rent now that the man she had has gone. They also challenged the notion that women’s “place” was in the domestic sphere. While they often sing about wanting male companionship. these women don’t sing of the traditional idealistic relationship so often featured in popular music of the time. She insists that she’s not picky as she sings.in love. “I’ll take what I can.” Similarly. Send Me a Man Blues” by Ma Rainey.
especially ones by women as songs “whose approach to sex is at once frank and uncompromising and fundamentally innocent” (134).” This sexual freedom is represented in many of the blues songs of the 1920’s as Smith and Rainey sing songs about homosexuality. especially since the economic and political components of freedom were largely denied to black people in the aftermath of slavery.” she contrasts the middle class value of the time that a woman with sexual desires is an immoral one (Batker 203). This song was one of the biggest hits of Smith’s career and also covered in sexual innuendo (Hamilton 133). In “Prove in on Me Blues.” she is not talking about dinner but rather about the night before with her lover. When Smith sings “He boiled my fresh cabbage and made it awful hot. In “Empty Bed Blues. Angela Davis argues that African American’s newfound freedom from slavery provided them with a newfound sexual freedom as well: “Personal and sexual dimensions of freedom acquired an expansive importance.” Rainey sings: . While Rainey’s relationships with women were no secret to her audience or colleagues (Davis. sex outside of marriage. At the time some critics viewed this blatant sexuality in music as “vicious and obscene.” however many more commentators viewed these songs as the “voice of progressive social change” (Hamilton 144).” Smith again sings explicitly of sex.” Ma Rainey sings explicitly about lesbianism. Bessie Smith addresses the contrast between respectability and sexual desire in her song “Young Woman’s Blues” (Batker 203). and female sexual desire. As she sings about being a “good woman” who is “not done running around. 39) it is still surprising that this topic was addressed in recorded form.Feminism. In “Prove It on Me Blues. The explicit sexuality of blues music is seen repeatedly in songs by Rainey and Smith. Hamilton refers to many of the blues songs of this time.
In addition to the contradiction of ideas on female sexuality. ‘cause I don’t like no men It’s true I wear a collar and a tie Make the wind blow all the while ‘Cause they say I do it. while it was understood and even expected that African American men were going to travel the rails.” she addresses that these dalliances with other women are unacceptable for the time. When Rainey demands that someone “prove it. ain’t nobody caught me They sure got to prove it on me. Ma Rainey “sings about women who were forever walking. Smith and Rainey contradicted this idea in their many songs about traveling. Post-slavery. However.Went out last night with a crowd of my friends They must’ve been women. leaving . 68). ain’t nobody caught me They sure got to prove it on me Wear my clothes just like a fan Talk to the girls like any old man ‘Cause they say I do it. for the first time. it was also understood and expected that an African American woman’s place was still at home (Davis. 68). love and marriage. they could (Davis. many African American men began to travel the country in search of jobs and simply because. The singer confesses to flirting with women. This behavior carried on into the next generation and was a part of the generation of early blues artists. female blues artists often contradicted the idea of where a woman belonged. The song openly admits a disdain for men and a preference for women. The songstress is bold and defiant about her relationships with women. running.
As a cure to her blues. or just wants to be satisfied. In “Traveling Blues. 66). In listening to lyrics about men who have cheated. she decides to board a train. takes many lovers. they are singing about the same idea—a woman’s independence. At the end she sings “I’m dangerous and blue. folks. Here come my train. or sometimes aimlessly rambling” (Davis. I’m no satisfied. one is. were constantly traveling and in some songs encouraged other women to do the same. to attain their own autonomy and to exercise their own control of their lives (Davis. it becomes clear that whether they are singing about sexuality. and I’ve got to go. when reviewing the lyrics of the songs by Rainey and Smith. something many woman at the time did not know they could have (Davis.catching trains.” Traveling songs like this one encouraged women to avoid passivity. of course. Rainey and Smith. Ultimately. no-good men. 74). In listening to lyrics about a woman who runs around on her husband.” Lyrics like this were more typical of male blues singers at the time (Davis 76) and understanding this. listening to songs about men who are no good. As touring artists. or traveling. 66). “Slow Driving Moan” is another one of Rainey’s famous traveling songs. The idea of traveling was associated with the idea of freedom. Rainey once identified her favorite song as “Traveling Blues” (Davis 73). the audience can see Rainey’s determination that men and women could behave in the same manner and should be treated the in the same way. When Rainey . can’t stay here no more. beaten or broken their women. what one is actually listening to is the idea that a woman has the right to make decisions and have choices about her own sexuality. is bisexual. but also about women who are too good to put up with it.” Rainey describes a cheating lover who has broken her heart. She sings “I’ve rambled ‘til I’m tired.
don’t fish in my sea. Women’s blues songs reflect the beginnings of this movement. just like a man. . the views portrayed in these songs were not widely held by men or women. she does not see it as necessary to her survival or fulfillment. as the twentieth century progressed these ideas became more commonplace. However. Women were allowed to vote on a national level in the United States only three years before Ma Rainey recorded her first song.sings of walking. Easy Go Blues” and when she sings “Aggravatin’ papa.” At the time that these songs were being recorded. When Smith sings “If my sweet man trifles. she is also singing of exploring and enjoying the freedom that this traveling allows for a woman and the fact that a woman has the right to do as she pleases. The theme of a woman’s independence appears time and time again in songs by Smith and Rainey. Miquell-Baldellou explains: Women’s blues songs challenged any assumptions of women’s gender-based inferiority that usually pervaded mainstream culture. Stay out of my valley and let my mountains be. Ma Rainey espouses the same idea when she sings “If you don’t like my ocean. or if he don’t. I’ll get someone to love me anytime he won’t” in “Easy Come. By expressing their different views on sexuality politics and defying romanticized relationships. running or riding.” in “Don’t Fish in My Sea. treat me kind or let me be” in “Aggravatin’ Papa” she is asserting her belief that while she enjoys the company of a man. it is not surprising that the idea that women and men should be treated as equals. With this contextual perspective. that women could get by without a husband and that they might have a fulfilling role outside of the home were not mainstream.
and securing economic justice for women (National). As exemplified in the preceding pages. This is reflected in the African-American feminist movement of today. the songs can be examined through the lens of a modern feminist group. These artists “forged and memorialized images of tough and resilient women who were afraid neither of their own vulnerability nor of defending their right to be respected as autonomous human beings” (Davis 41). Referring to Rainey and Smith. charismatic personalities.” Their purpose is to “take action to bring women into full participation in society — sharing equal rights. most comprehensive feminist advocacy group in the United States. while living free from discrimination” (National) Per their website. The National Organization of Women includes the following among their priorities: securing a Constitutional Amendment guaranteeing equality in pay. jobs and education for women. responsibilities and opportunities with men. their prominence as public figures. ending violence against women. their financial independence and their reputations as exquisite artists” (73). The National Organization of Women is “the largest. fighting against racism. these same topics are prevalent in the female blues songs of the 1920’s . In order to compare the lyrics of blues songs to modern feminism. fighting against discrimination on the basis of one’s sexuality.women blues singers redefined women’s place and reaffirmed the identity of African-American women (73). Artists like Smith and Rainey and songs like theirs went on to influence books with feminist perspectives like Their Eyes Were Watching God and The Colour Purple (Miquel-Baldellou 74). Suisman explains that it was not just their talent and music that mattered to women of their time and still effects women of today: “Their impact was felt not only in their outspokenness on record but also in their strong.
. Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey covered this wide spectrum of topics while also entertaining thousands of people.and 1930’s. or make it through life as an independent person. Whether arguing that a woman should have the right to choose her own destiny. Rainey and Smith’s songs express the views of the modern feminist movement and may even have inspired its beginnings. The artists may never have said that they believed that woman should have equal rights as men but their lyrics imply it. Women like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey used this outlet to espouse views that they could not have known would become standard ideology of the modern feminist movement. The blues of the 1920’s provided women with an outlet to express their struggles and successes that they likely would not have had otherwise. express her sexuality.