This paper will examine the history of the blues and the role that many female blues singers played in the development of the blues during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Further it will examine and compare the lives of many historic female blues singers and the impact they had on the music industry and society as a whole. Discussion will include the defining moments of blues music combined with the African American culture following the freeing of the slaves.
Female Blues Singers of the 1800s and 1920s
The blues emerged between the end of the civil war and the beginning of the 20th century. The blues were born out of the changes that occurred in the lives of African Americans after slavery ended. It was created out of the field hollers and work calls that were used as a means of communication among black plantation workers in the south. It helped to shape and define the new-found status of the African American workers and in turn this status helped to shape blues music. “There was a direct relationship between the national ideological emphasis upon the individual, the popularity of Booker T. Washington’s teachings, and the rise of the blues. Psychologically, socially, and economically, Negroes were being acculturated in a way that would have been impossible during slavery, and it is hardly surprising that their secular music reflected this as much as their religious music did.” (Levine, Lawrence W., Black Culture and Black Consciousness.) Some claim that the blues are a form of American culture with no African or European influence. Most likely, it is a combination or blending of both.
The blues were initially sung by men during leisure or at Vaudeville shows. Female blues singers were not as well know. But women were active participants in the evolution of blues music from the country to the city, or from the south to the north. (Duval, Daphne., Black Pearls, Blue Queens of the 1920’s.) “Since the early 1800s when they began drumming in New Orleans’ Congo Square, women have been a major part of the development of blues and jazz. (Ervin, Yvonne. A Woman’s Place is in The Groove. 1995.) In fact, the first vocal blues recording was by a woman named Mamie Smith.
Mamie, coined “Queen of the Blues,” was born in 1883, in Cinncinatti, Ohio. She was a dancer, singer, and a star of the stage and screen. Mamie was not known as a blues performer, she not only the first woman, but the first African American to record a blues song. That record was “Crazy Blues”, recorded August 10, 1920 and sold a million copies in the first six months. Mamie was not the first female blues singer. Mamie was one of the popular blues singers among the likes of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Ida Cox, Victoria Spivey, Sippie Wallace, Alberta Hunter, and Clara Smith.
Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, was from Georgia and known as the “Mother of the Blues.” She was born in 1886 and died in 1939. Rainey first performed at the age of 14 in Columbus, Georgia. Shortly thereafter she joined a travelling Vaudeville show. It was after hearing a young girl perform a blues song that Rainey began singing with a blues style. She was the first woman to incorporate blues into her act of show songs and comedy. “In 1902, she heard a woman singing about the man she’d lost, and quickly learned the song. From then on at each performance, she used it as her closing number calling it “the blues.” (Wikipedia) Rainey recorded over 100 songs and wrote 24 of them herself. “learned their art and craft from Ma, directly or indirectly.” Many young women followed Ma Rainey’s path, performing in the tent show circuit. During this period black performers were not allowed to be in venues.
Bessie Smith, born in Tennessee, sometime around April 15, 1894. The exact date of her birth is unclear, as the state department did not keep track of black births at that time. Bessie was to become known as the “Empress of the Blues.” (Wikipedia) By the age of 9, Bessie had lost both of her parents and began performing on the streets of Chatanooga to support the household. Bessie first performed as a dancer, until she was let go because her skin was too black. By the time Bessie started developing her act as a blues performer, the demographics of the country were changing. Mamie has just recorded “Crazy Blues” and the music industry was just beginning to realize the impact that the blues, particularly recorded by blacks, were going to have. Bessie would go on to become the highest paid artist during the 1920s after struggling to be recorded. It was in 1923 that Bessie recorded her first smash hit, Down Hearted Blues. The depression had a negative impact on the music industry. After a life of alcoholism and promiscuous sexual affairs, Bessie died in a car crash in 1937, at the age of 41. Her grave remained unmarked until Janis Joplin and Juanita Green (the child of a former employee) gave her a grave stone in 1970.
Ethel Waters was born in Pennsylvania to a twelve year old who had been raped. Ethel grew up in a violent neighborhood, raised by her grandmother. Her singing career began with amateur night performances in Philadelphia, after which she joined the black theatre circuit. Waters began her first job in a club in 1919. She made her recording debut on Cardinal records in 1921. She was to become the first black “Superstar,” known to have opened many of the doors previously closed to black entertainers. By the mid-1920s, Waters was becoming known more as a jazz singer. Waters introduced urban blues to a white audience.
Ida Cox, born in 1896, in Georgia, began her singing career in a local church. She was a contemporary of Bessie Smith, but not really in the same league as a singer. Ida brought a lot of passion to her music, which filled the gap of her voice. She left home to tour with a traveling minstrel show. Following in Mamie Smith’s footsteps, and the call for “race” recordings, Cox made several recordings for Paramount records. Cox lived a modest life. In her prime, she had sung thousands of dates in nightclubs, and recorded dozens of singles. Cox was a headliner at Carnegie Hall, with the likes of Benny Goodman and Count Basie. Shortly thereafter, she dropped out of site, until recording her last song in 1961.
Victoria Spivey, born in 1908, began her musical career at the age of 12, while playing piano in a movie theatre in Houston, Texax. Spivey was born into a musical family, her father had a string band. Spivey was more influential than the other female blues singers, simply because she was around long enough to have an impact on the generations of blues to come. Spivey was a complete package, she could write songs, sing them, and accompanied herself on piano and organ. She began her recording career at age 19. Like many others, Spivey was not afraid to incorporate suggestive lyrics into her music. Spivey continued performing into the 1970s.
Sippie Wallace was born into a musical family as well, in 1898. Similar to others, Wallace began her singing career in the Baptist church where her father was a deacon. At the age of 17, Wallace moved to New Orleans, married and changed her name. In 1923, she moved to Chicago and made her first recordings as “The Texas Nightengale.” (Wikipedia) Wallace recorded 40 songs between 1923 and 1927, many of them written by herself or her brothers.
Each of these singers, and the many that followed brought with them a piece of their history to the music they sang. It was part of this history that brought them to their musical careers. The blues were born at a time when the slaves had been freed but weren’t financially equipped to survive. It was out of this that was born the twelve bar blues, blacks singing of their problems with love, money and life. It was this era that changed the styles of voice and instruments that would forever impact the music industry in America.
It was the “blues queens” of the 1920s that created an approach to singing and
performing that had an impact on nearly every other singer who succeeded them, including Billie
Holiday. The combination of theatrics, knowing their audience, realizing the impact on their
listeners, and an overall respect for the music are apparent in the music they made. “When
Bessie sang “Any Woman’s Blues” she tapped into the reality of many women who suffered
from the ambivalence of a relationship that had a powerful but distressing hold on them.”
What made blues singers unique was their use of real life, tied up with emotion, which matched
the artistry of rising and already-arrived instrumentalists of the 1920s. The use of language
combined with the instruments’ imitative sounds of nature, created a visual image for the listener
that was elaborated upon by the emotional appeal of the women singers. There were no rules.
Women carried their life onto the stage with them. During the turbulent time in which the blues
were born this brought immense appeal. (Duval, 1988)
The blues became know as the music of the black working class. It was a way for African
Americans to express the modern problems of economics, social errors, and poverty and power
struggles they faced after they became free. Music became a way for economic gain. Although
blues music is often thought of as sad, it also became a way to deal with the hardships and to
celebrate good times. The blues are about basic human emotions and as such, speaks to people of
all races and backgrounds. The blues had an influence on jazz, gospel, and rock-n-roll, to name
There is a great variety in the study of the blues, based on “the relationship of a singer’s
blues to those of his sources – the other singers that he learned from” and “the variation or
stability from one performance….to another by the same performer.” (Duval Harrison, Daphne.
Black Pearls, Blues Queens of the 1920s.) Each performed had learned from other performers,
piano rolls, local musicians, Sunday School and church and in some cases, from members of
their families. They were flexible and diverse in their choice of texts and music others
because they had more life sources to draw upon. They were active participants in the evolution
of the blues as it moved from coutryside to the cities and back. They transformed their personal
lives into artistic expression. They mixed the ingredients of heartbreak and joy to create the
songs that caused thousands of black people to flock to their shows and to buy their recordings.
Through the blues, these women became spokespersons for black women in the North and the
South. Yet, each remained a style unto its own.
Bessie Smith and Ma Raimey sang about the threat of violence or prison without tears or
remorse. Smith sang of the complexities of urban life and its effect on black women. Smith
could sing of sadness, but carrying no tears.
You can send me up the river, or send me to that mean ole jail’
You can send me up the river, or send me to that mean ole jail,
I killed my man and I don’t need no bail.
A woman can tell a man to move on because he is not satisfying her.
Back your horse out my stable, back him out fast,
I got another jockey, get yourself another mare.
Now, you can’t ride, honey, you can’t ride this train,
I’m the engineer, I’m gonna run it like a Stavin’Chain.
“Stavin Chain,” Lil Johnson, Copulating Blues
To define the blues in technical terms is easy, a basic I-IV-V chord progression, laid over
a 12 bar framework. To those who study the blues, play the blues or love the blues, the meaning
is much more in-depth. Since the blues first developed from the African American field hollers
of the south, emotion has always been the key ingredient. The blues is honest. The blues is life
with all of its ups and downs.
There was a pronounced difference between blues music and the spiritual or gospel music that had superceded it. Gospel music focused on the afterlife and the reward of good behavior. Blues music focused on everyday life, including subjects of sex, violence, partying, traveling and working. The blues were more ambivalent than spiritual or gospel music. The blues, especially among female singers, was an assertion of individuality. Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith sang about no good, cheating men and outlined their ambivalence toward men. It became an assertion of their independence and perhaps the beginning of the black feminist movement.
“FROM THE 1920S, WHEN VAUDEVILLE BLUES women stood in the public limelight en masse for the first time, the blues has been a vehicle for African American women to articulate their experiences and express their feelings. Through their powerful voices, engaging delivery, and bold self-presentation, vaudeville blues women empowered themselves and their audiences. “Telling it like it is,” they challenged the status quo–talking back to stereotypes, commanding sexual respect, and demanding an end to mistreatment–while giving voice to the diversity of their experiences. Drawing upon the aesthetics of black performance style, blues women affirmed their humanity as their ancestors had done.” (Johnson, Maria. Women in Music.)
These women began to challenge their stereotypic roles in life, including their sexuality. Many female blues singers during this era had openly admitted their bisexuality. They sang about their lives, their relationships, their loves. Frequently, the lyrics describe the violence that occurred in their relationships. In “Sweet Rough man,” Ma Rainey proclaims, “He keeps my lips split, my eyes black as jet/But the way he love me make me soon forget.” Bessie Smith in “Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do,” states, “I’d rather my man would hit me than to jump up and quit me….I swear I won’t call no copper if I’m beat up by my papa.” The blues provide an opportunity for each of these women to tell their story, their own personal catastrophe.
As Brian Ward states in the title of his book, it is “just my soul responding”. What a
beautiful way to define the blues. The lyrics speak of so many things whether good or bad, love
or hate, romance or violence. Perhaps it is simply that. Just my soul responding, responding to
the state of slavery and the end, responding to the dysfunctional relationships where women
would rather be beaten than left, responding to an economy where they were free but with
inadequate resources to survive.
These artists were influenced by their geographic region as well. Geographic areas could
well defined, such as Mississippi Delta Blues, or more general, as in the city or country blues.
The country (rural) blues singer was depicted as a solo performer, singing and accompanying
himself. The city (urban) blues singer was part of a band, such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.
But these definitions were not always literate. A country blues singer could be living and
performing in an urban area.
Musically, the blues varied greatly. There was so much personal expression that every
singer and every local had styles all its own. The blues were really a format into which the
singer could apply his or her own personal story. The call and response elements could be found
in all blues. It was a conversation that occurred between the singer and the audience. It was in
this conversation that the singer could become validated. Black singers told their stories and the
when successful, the audience found something they could relate to. This especially furthered
the cause of the female blues singer. Black women had been oppressed by slavery and further by
their status within a relationship. The female blues singer offered a powerful alternative to the
roles that black women had played. They brought inspiration to black audiences. (Levine, 1977)
Women brought more to the blues than just voice. They changed the presentation of the
music. From showy costumes, to style, to the accompaniment, these singers changed the very
essence of the blues. As southern singers migrated north, they helped to spread and standardize
“The blues? Why, the blues are a part of me. They’re like a chant. The blues arelike spirituals, almost sacred. When we sing blues, we’re singing out our hearts, we’re singing out our feelings. Maybe we’re hurt and just can’t answer back, then we sing or maybe even hum the blues. When I sing, ‘I walk the floor, wring my hands and cry — Yes, I walk the floor, wring my hands and cry,’… what I’m doing is letting my soul out.”
Some white critics tried to discredit the female blues singers and their influence by
calling them pop singers and entertainers. Black people have not endorsed this philosophy. For
the African American, these women were the blues. It was these female blues singers that
packed the shows. It was these female singers who were first recorded and brought the blues
around the world.
Does music shape culture or does culture shape music? Certainly, the answer to both
questions is yes. The social conditions in the early 1900s certainly shaped the blues and the role
of female blues singers. At a different time and place, the essence of their music would most
likely be quite different. It was the surroundings and conditions that gave rise to this new, sassy
kind of music. Without slavery, racism, and other oppressors, the female blues singers who
emerged were not likely to be as outspoken or brazen in their performance.
Certainly, these women and their music brought forth a radical change in culture. They
were no longer going to be oppressed. They brought voice to black women across the country
and perhaps to women in general. They talked about things that “weren’t talked about” at that
time. They gave women a chance to be assertive vicariously if not individually. Most people
believe the 1960s gave rise to a sexual revolution. Clearly it began much sooner.
If the depression had not occurred, one might wonder where this revolution would have
ended. With the depression, the careers of many female blues singers declined and soon ended.
This struggle changed many lives of the singers themselves. Some retired and went back to their
homes as did Ma Rainey. Some lives were ended in tragedy as in the case of Bessie Smith.
Currently, when we think of the blues, we conjure up images of BB King and the like.
The legends that shaped the blues were the women of the 1800s and early 1900s. They were
women who began a revolution and carried it forward. They were women who lived the past and
with their energy, shaped the future.
“Classic Female Blues.” Wikipedia. 5 Apr. 2006 <http://www.wikipedia.com>.
Duval, Daphne. Black Pearls, Blue Queens of the 1920s. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1988.
Ervin, Yvonne. “A Woman’s Place is in The Groove.” Tuscon Weekly Summer 1995. 5 Apr. 2006 <http://www.tusconweekly.com>. Path: Woman and Blues.
Johnson, Maria V. Jelly Jelly Jellyroll: Lesbian Sexuality and Indentity in Women’s Blues. Questia Online Library. Questia Media America. 5 Apr. 2006 <http://www.questia.com/>.
Levine, Lawrence W. Black Culture and Black Consciousness. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.