Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday

Angela Davis | Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday

The female blues singers of the 1920s, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, and Bessie Smith, not only invented a musical genre, but they also became models of how African American women could become economically independent in a culture that had not previously allowed it. Both Smith and Rainey composed, arranged, and managed their own road bands. Angela Y. Davis’s study emphasizes the impact that these singers, and later Billie Holiday, had on the poor and working-class communities from which they came. The artists addressed radical subjects such as physical and economic abuse, race relations, and female sexual power, including lesbianism. Ma Rainey was well known as a lover of women as well as men, and her song “Prove It on Me” describes a butch woman who dresses like a man and dates women. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism places the fluid sexuality of these women within a larger context of African American artists’ attempts to subvert and recreate America. –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

In her provocative book, Davis, the well-known sixties radical, professor and author (Women, Culture, and Politics; Women, Race, and Class) finds, in the work of three pivotal artists of the blues and jazz era, “rich terrain for examining a historical feminist consciousness that reflected the lives of working-class black communities.” Through her close readings of their lyrics, which she transcribed (and presents as the book’s second half), Davis explores the meanings behind the performances of Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith. Toppling the prevailing image of the tragic blues woman, she finds that the songs don’t portray the desolate and deserted woman; rather, “the most frequent stance assumed by the women in these songs is independence and assertiveness?indeed defiance?bordering on and sometimes erupting into violence.” She also offers ample evidence to dispute claims that women’s blues were personal, not political, arguing that their songs created consciousness by naming the issues. Her readings of Billie Holiday’s lyrics are less successful, perhaps because it is difficult to capture in words Holiday’s subversive renderings of popular love songs. Still, Davis’s book should be read by both scholars and music aficionados for its expressive reading of these singers’ complex works. 8 pages of b&w photos.

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