A funny thing happened when I researched the role of women in developing the Blues in the twentieth century: I found an alternative narrative that contained a few surprises. For example, the year 2003 was designated by Congress as “The Year of the Blues” to commemorate W.C. Handy’s first encounter with the music, in a railroad station in Tutwiler, Mississippi, in 1903. Well, it turns out that one of the “Blues divas” of the 1920s, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, had a similar experience a year before Handy’s epiphany. According to folklorist John Work, Ma Rainey was performing in a tent show in a small Missouri town in 1902, when “a girl from the town . . . came to the tent one morning and began to sing about the ‘man’ who had left her.” Ma Rainey was so taken by the “strange and poignant” song that she learned it and incorporated it into her act, usually as an encore. Work reported that “Many times [Rainey] was asked what kind of song it was, and, one day she replied, in a moment of inspiration, ‘It’s the Blues.'” (Francis Davis, The History of the Blues, p.28)
Moreover, for most Blues fans, the stereotypical early Blues performer is a black man, playing and singing in a rural setting, perhaps the Mississippi Delta. Yet, the first Blues song ever recorded was “Crazy Blues,” by Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Hounds, in 1920. In fact, the 1920s, the “classic era” of recorded Blues, was dominated by women who lived, performed, and recorded in the cities. The decade of the the 1920s is also called the “Jazz Age.” Most of the Blues divas of the ’20s came from a vaudeville or cabaret background; since few of them could play instruments, the members of their backup bands tended to be jazz musicians. The line between jazz and the Blues was fuzzy at best, in other words. Moreover, as a modern scholar points out, “In the 1920s, . . . women blues singers had been extremely successful, but many people had regarded them simply as popular entertainers and had associated them with sexuality and working-class urban vices more than with technical skill or acquired artistry.” (Ruth Feldstein, “‘I Don’t Trust You Anymore’: Nina Simone, Culture, and Black Activism in the 1960s,” Journal of American History 91 (March, 2005), 1356)
The era of the “Classic Blues” ended in 1929, when the Stock Market Crash and the ensuing Great Depression dealt a devastating one-two punch to record labels and recording contracts. As the demand for the Blues dried up in the 1930s, some Blues women returned to southern tent shows, small northern clubs, or began to sing jazz, swing, or big band music. A few women, of whom Memphis Minnie is the best example, began to perform with combos in cities like Chicago, “which would sow the seeds for the electric-blues-band revolution of the 1950s.” (Peter Guralnick, et al., eds., Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: A Musical Journey, p.24) Other singers abandoned pure Blues for the more popular “rhythm ‘n’ blues” (R&B) in the 1940s and 1950s. And still others got out of music altogether and into lines of work that, while perhaps less exciting, promised a more regular paycheck.
Ironically, a few of these elderly former “Blues Queens” found themselves back in demand during the Blues revival of the 1960s, as covers of their old songs by performers like Janis Joplin and Bonnie Raitt revived interest in their original work. So, those who could, hit the performing and recording trails again. To a great extent, this revival of interest in the Blues during the ’60s helped to ensure its survival for the rest of the twentieth century, as American groups and rock and R&B performers joined “British invasion” bands like the Rolling Stones and the Animals in playing and singing the Blues. As the century ended, moreover, there were a number of younger women working hard to keep the Blues alive.
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MAMIE SMITH (1883-1946)–Born in Cincinnati. Began in vaudeville as a dancer, moved to New York City in 1913, later worked as a singer in Harlem. In August 1920, an African American composer, Perry Bradford, who was also Smith’s agent, talked Okeh Records into letting her record “Crazy Blues,” a song he had already published with other companies under at least three different names. The record sold 75,000 copies in the first month, 1,000,000 the first year, and a total of 2,000,000. This convinced record companies that African Americans would buy records, made recorded Blues the next big thing, and launched Mamie Smith’s career. Smith made a lot of money in the first three years or so after recording “Crazy Blues,” but she spent it as fast as she made it. Not even several movie appearances in the ’30s and ’40s could salvage her career, and she died penniless in 1946.
GERTRUDE “MA” RAINEY (1886-1939)–known as the “Mother of the Blues,” she was born Gertrude Pridgett to minstrel parents in Columbus, Georgia. While Mamie Smith might have recorded the first Blues song, Ma Rainey was probably the first artist to include a Blues tune in her act. She worked most of her early life in tent shows and minstrel troupes that traveled throughout the South. Beginning in 1923, Rainey recorded 90 songs over a period of five years. In the costumes she wore in her elaborate shows, Rainey made up in gold, jewelry, and expensive gowns what she lacked in conventional physical beauty. Because she invested her earnings, Rainey was able to retire comfortably to Columbus, beginning in 1934.
BESSIE SMITH (1894-1937)–born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Her first stage appearance was at the age of 9; as a teenager, she sang and danced in traveling minstrel shows, including one that also featured Ma Rainey. When she first tried to land a recording contract, she was deemed to have a voice that was “too rural,” but she eventually signed with Columbia in 1923. Her first single, “Downhearted Blues,” sold almost 800,000 copies. Over the next decade, Smith recorded 160 sides that blended vaudeville pop, country blues, and jazz. Her stage presence earned her the nickname “Empress of the Blues,” and she possessed a formidable personality. In 1937, Bessie Smith died as the result of a traffic accident outside Clarksdale, Mississippi.
MEMPHIS MINNIE (1897-1973)–born Lizzie Douglas, just outside New Orleans. Her father bought her a guitar when she was eight, which she quickly learned to play, and, at the age of 13, she left home to tour the South with the Ringling Brothers Circus. She was another strong-minded Blues woman; one acquaintance claimed that Minnie was “tougher than a man,” and part of her reputation was that she “played the guitar like a man.” Veteran Blues performer Big Bill Broonzy, whom Minnie is reputed to have bested in a guitar-playing contest in 1933, said that she could “make a guitar speak words, she can make a guitar cry, moan, talk, and whistle the blues.” (Christopher John Farley, “Memphis Minnie and the Cutting Contest,” in Guralnick, et al., Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues, p.199) Memphis Minnie began recording in 1929 and remained perhaps the biggest female Blues star through World War II.
RORY BLOCK (1949-)–born in Princeton, N.J., Rory Block was raised in New York City’s Greenwich Village during the folk revival of the early 1960s. She began to play the guitar as a youngster; then, as a teenager, she had an epiphany of sorts: “One day in 1964 I heard an album called ‘Really The Country Blues,’ and from that moment on my life was dedicated to learning how to play blues.” (Rory Block, “Life Story,” official web site) Over the next several years, she spent time honing her craft with such Blues masters as Reverend Gary Davis and Son House. Block has since been acclaimed for her mastery of Country and Delta Blues, but she also can “walk the fine line of being a traditionalist, . . . while incorporating the experiences of modern life into her sound.” (Sue Foley, liner notes, Blues Guitar Women cd) Blues historian Francis Davis describes Block as “an accomplished slide guitarist–one of the best contemporary interpreters of Robert Johnson and other legends of years gone by.” (Davis, The History of the Blues, p. 249) These qualities are especially evident on two of her cds, The Lady and Mr. Johnson and Blues Walkin’ Like a Man: A Tribute to Son House.
RUTH BROWN (1928-2006)–born in Portsmouth, Virginia, as Ruth Weston. After overcoming the opposition of her father, a church choir director, to her singing pop tunes, she signed with an R&B outfit, Atlantic Records, in 1948. Over the next decade, she turned out a series of hits that earned for her the nickname “Miss Rhythm” and her record company that of “the House that Ruth Built.” After three disastrous marriages, however, her career dried up in the 1960s, and, to support herself and her two sons, Brown worked as a maid, a school bus driver, and a teacher’s aide, singing only on weekends. Her career revived in the mid-1970s, when she began to record jazz and Blues songs.
WILLIE MAE (“BIG MAMA”) THORNTON (1926-1984)–born in Montgomery, Alabama. After winning an amateur singing contest, Willlie Mae Thornton was signed to sing in a show called “Hot Harlem Review.” Following a stint in Houston, Texas, Thornton moved to New York City, where she earned her nickname “Big Mama” for her work in a show at the Apollo Theater in 1952. She recorded “Hound Dog” for Peacock Records in 1953. It sold 2,000,000 copies, from which Big Mama received only a single check, for $500, despite the fact that Elvis Presley would make the song a rock ‘n’ roll classic in 1956. A decade later, Janis Joplin covered another Thornton song, “Ball and Chain,” and it became a big hit. The success of Joplin’s “Ball and Chain” also revived Thornton’s career, and she began touring again. Her overpowering stage presence endeared her to fans everywhere.
SIPPIE WALLACE (1898-1986)–Sippie Wallace was born Beulah Thomas in Houston, Texas. By her teens, she was performing with other family members in New Orleans’ notorious Storyville District. After the authorities closed Storyville in 1917, Sippie went back to tent shows. She was one of the female vocalists who cashed in on recorded Blues, in the wake of Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues.” Signed by Smith’s label, Okey Records, Wallace soon became the company’s top-grossing singer. She not only wrote many of her songs, but she also played piano on some of her records. Like most of the Blues divas of the 1920s, Wallace stopped recording after 1929. Following a few years organizing her own tours of dance halls and gin joints, Wallace retired to a career teaching and performing church music. Ron Harwood, a 16-year old Blues researcher, brought Sippie out of retirement in 1965 and acted as her agent and manager for the next 22 years. One of those who admired–and covered–several of Wallace’s songs was Bonnie Raitt; in fact, one of those tunes, “Woman Be Wise,” became Raitt’s first major hit, and Wallace toured with Raitt between 1972 and 1985.
FRANCINE REED (1947-)–born in Chicago, Reed has been singing professionally since she was a child, when she was a member of her family’s gospel group. A broken marriage forced her to put her ambitions for a singing career on hold until her children were grown. She rose to prominence in the jazz clubs of her adopted hometown of Phoenix, Arizona. In 1985, Reed met the then unknown Lyle Lovett, and she became the back-up singer for his Large Band. She relocated to Atlanta, Georgia, and since then her solo career as a Blues performer has really taken off.
1. Charters, Samuel. The Blues Makers. DaCapo, 1991.
2. Davis, Francis. The History of the Blues. Hyperion, 1995.
3. Feldstein, Ruth. “‘I Don’t Trust You Anymore’: Nina Simone, Culture, and Black Activism in the 1960s,” Journal of American History 91 (March, 2005), 1349-1379.
4. Guralnick, Peter, et al., eds. Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: A Musical Journey. Amistad, 2003.
5. Harrison, Daphne Duval. Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s. Rutgers University Press, 1993.
6. Lomax, Alan. The Land Where the Blues Began. Pantheon Books, 1993.
7. McKee, Margaret, and Fred Chisenhall. Beale Black & Blue: Life and Music on Black America’s Main Street. LSU Press, 1981.
1. Francine Reed, I Got a Right! . . . to some of my best. CMO Records (CMO 1010)
2. Rory Block, The Lady and Mr. Johnson. Rykodisc (RCD 10872); Blues Walkin’ Like a Man. Stony Plain (SPCD 1329)
3. Blues Masters, Vol. 1: Classic Blues Women. Rhino (R2 71134)
4. The Bonnie Raitt Collection. Warner Brothers (9 26242-2)
5. Essential Women in Blues. House of Blues (5146 1257 2)
6. Ladies Sing the Blues. Academy Sound and Vision Ltd. (CD AJA 5092)
7. Men Are Like Street Cars. . . Women Blues Singers, 1928-1969 MCA (MCAD2-11788)
8. Blues Guitar Women. Ruf Records (RUF 1110)
9. Roots of the Blues. Vanguard (208/10-2)
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: