[NOTE: A different take on an earlier post, “20th –Century Blues Women,” this time emphasizing the decade of the 1920s.]
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2003 was designated by Congress as “The Year of the Blues” to commemorate W.C. Handy’s first encounter with that music, in a railroad station in Tutwiler, Mississippi, in 1903. Yet, 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, 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)
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, even if, like Ma Rainey, they brought a country feel to their music. Sippie Wallace and Victoria Spivey also combined a country style and an urban perspective, with more emphasis on the “urban” than Ma Rainey, while Bessie Smith specialized in the “city blues.”
Alberta Hunter and Edith Wilson took the blues into cabarets, with whites in the audience, to produce music that was “more cosmopolitan, less emotional.” (Daphne Duval Harrison, Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s , 10-12)
The “Great Migration” sent large numbers of African Americans out of the South—fleeing Jim Crow and looking for economic opportunity—into the cities of the industrial Midwest and Northeast. When it came to giving those new urban residents something to do in their spare time, “Toby” (TOBA—the Theatre Owners Booking Association, a forerunner of the “Chitlin’ Circuit“) played a major role. Despite primitive conditions and rampant dishonesty on the part of some promoters, the “Toby circuit” gave aspiring Blues singers, especially women, the opportunity to launch careers as entertainers in the proliferating theaters in cities providing new homes for the fugitives of the Great Migration.
TOBA had been organized in Memphis in 1909. (Harrison, 23) Only those at the top of the bill were treated well; the rest pretty much had to fend for themselves—complaining did little good, because whites were TOBA stockholders; owned or managed the theaters; and even controlled some living facilities. (Harrison, 26) The decline of the black population in the South, and its concomitant growth in the North, gave whites a chance to capture a share of the African American entertainment market for their own theaters and circuits. TOBA, in the early years, provided black vaudeville and tent shows to sixty-seven theaters across the South and Midwest. Blues singers were included, and hearing them led audience members to demand recordings by their favorties. (Harrison, 17)
The Great Migration, with Chicago at its epicenter, was full of problems for those who moved, but it did provide increased economic opportunity. Pushed into areas segregated from whites, blacks developed their own social and cultural institutions, including music and theaters. Ambitious, talented young black women saw their chance—and took it.
The queen of the TOBA circuit, Ma Rainey, was known for her country blues but also for her willingness to support, advise, and nurture younger performers. When “discovered” by Paramount in 1923, Ma had already been performing on the “Toby circuit” for years, which of course meant that Paramount didn’t really “discover” her; rather, the company “merely preserved on wax a voice that would serve as a striking example of the diversity of the black experience.” (Harrison, 39)
Yet, while the “Toby circuit” gave many female Blues singers a chance to hone their skills, what enabled them to earn money was the recording industry, as Mamie Smith and “Crazy Blues” showed. Mamie Smith found that her stage show benefited her recording career, and vice versa, and her live performances enabled her to set the standard for future “blues queens,” when it came to costumes and scenery. Any number of aspiring Blues divas were willing and able to follow in Mamie Smith’s wake, in hopes of earning a recording contract.
Another Smith, Bessie, through her recordings, raised the Blues “to an art form that was to be the hallmark for every woman blues singer who recorded during the 1920s.” She was simply a much better performer than most of her contemporaries, and she could still sing songs that showed she identified “with the anxieties, alienation, and disaffection of the urban black woman.” (Harrison, 52-53)
These Blues divas joined numerous others to build the foundation upon which the “race record” industry flourished. Most of the singers from that era came from a vaudeville or cabaret background; since few could play instruments, their backup bands tended to be made up of jazz musicians (e.g., Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Hounds). The line between jazz and the Blues was fuzzy at best in this era.
In the larger black community, many residents were concerned about the morals of female Blues performers, 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)
According to Ida Cox’s song “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues,” unless black women were “wild,” they were in a bad place in northern industrial cities. So, Ida and her compeers set out to rally the troops with songs that were “paradoxical,” because they “contain the expression of the agony and pain of life as experienced by blacks in America; yet, the very act and mode of articulation demonstrates a toughness that releases, exhilarates, and renews.” (Harrison, 66)
Women’s blues lyrics generally emphasized the same conditions as men’s—“infidelity, alienation, loneliness, despondency, death, poverty, injustice, love, and sex. But women responded to these concerns differently and dealt with certain themes more or less frequently.” Problems caused by natural disasters were frequent topics in women’s blues songs, as were unemployment, poverty, and disease. (Harrison, 70)
The era of the “Classic Blues”—and of most of the early “Blues divas”—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, like early 1930s icon Memphis Minnie, 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) Some singers abandoned pure Blues for the more popular “rhythm ‘n’ blues” (R&B) in the 1940s and 1950s, while others got out of music altogether and into lines of work that, though perhaps less exciting, promised a more regular paycheck.
Ironically, a few elderly former “Blues divas,” not all from the 1920s, found themselves back in demand during the Blues revival of the 1960s, as covers of their old songs by performers like Janis Joplin (Big Mama Thornton) and Bonnie Raitt (Sippie Wallace) revived interest in their original work.
So, those who were able to, hit the performing and recording trails again. To a great extent, this revival of interest in the Blues during the ’60s helped ensure its survival for the remainder of the twentieth century, as American rock ‘n’ roll and R&B performers joined “British invasion” bands like the Rolling Stones and the Animals in playing and singing the Blues. And the surviving early “Blues divas” played a key role in making that happen.
- Davis, Francis. The History of the Blues. Hyperion, 1995.
- 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.
- Guralnick, Peter, et al., eds. Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: A Musical Journey. Amistad, 2003.
- Harrison, Daphne Duval. Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s. Rutgers University Press, 1993.
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: