In her work ‘Blues Legacies and Black Feminism’ Angela Davis states her aim is to discover what we can learn from three pioneers of blues music: Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. She wants to look beyond biography to investigate how their work reflected feminist attitudes and helped shaped black consciousness. The work is academic in tone and purpose, a rightfully serious but also personally passionate account of the significance of these often overlooked artists and their legacies. By placing their music in a wider sociocultural context, Davis gives these women the respect and acclaim they so richly deserve.
The opening chapter explores the significance of sexuality in Blues songs, and how women in this genre embraced sexual imagery and freedom in a way that was revolutionary at the time. Davis analyses key songs from Rainey and Smith, concluding that they exude ‘a self-confident sense of female independence and unabashed embrace of sexual pleasure.’ These woman sang songs of ‘fearless, unadorned realism’ and weren’t afraid to expose their own vulnerability while at the same time demanding respect. Davis calls Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey a ‘pioneer on the black entertainment circuit and the person most responsible for shaping women’s blues for many generations’. You can trace the influence of such open, sexually free lyricism right through the timeline of popular music.
Davis is also concerned with reconsidering these women in a new political and socially conscious light. Many argue that blues songs are rarely concerned with social protest but Davis uses examples from Bessie Smith’s career, like Poor Man’s Blues, Rainey’s ‘Tough Luck Blues’ and Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ to convincingly prove otherwise. She states these women ‘begin to articulate a consciousness that takes into account social conditions of class exploration, racism and male dominance as seen through the lens of the complex emotional responses of black female subjects.’ These woman may have predated the civil rights or feminist movements but their work paved the way for marginalised voices to be heard.
Bessie Smith, who was mentored by Rainey, recorded many songs which dealt with social issues. Davis compares her to Zora Neale Hurston in terms of their interest in spirituality and folk history. She also sees connections in how both have been marginalised and forgotten by history. Thanks to the work of writers like Davis and Alice Walker, Hurston has been rightly awarded her place in the literary canon. Davis asks for Smith to receive the same acclaim in music. This book was published twenty years ago and I do think more could be done to bring her further into popular consciousness (I am pleased to say a movie of her life was released in 2015, starring Queen Latifah). The lyrics to the complete songbook of Rainey and Smith are also printed in the book, a fascinating glimpse into the world of these women and an important way to keep their songs alive.
In the final section of the book Davis reconsiders Billie Holiday’s music and its connections to the blues. In the past her catalogue was often dismissed as lacking the depth of the blues pioneers before her, with the majority of her recordings seen as merely Tin Pan Alley love songs in a contemporary jazz style. Even her signature song Strange Fruit was sometimes thought to be an anomaly, something she sang accidentally rather than central to her artistic vision. Davis dedicates two chapters to obliterating these theories and argues convincingly that Holiday’s work was ‘conscious of the need for radical change in the status of black people.’ For example she wanted to call her biography Bitter Crop, in reference to the final words of Strange Fruit but was made to change it to Lady Sings The Blues to appeal to white audiences. Even when she sang ‘superficial’ love songs, Davis argues, her renditions were charged with a conscious intent to highlight the effect of strict gender roles on the emotional lives of women.
In the chapter on Strange Fruit Davis argues that Holiday connected with this song, not because she had ever seen a lynching (as her film biopic suggests) but because such scenes were a part of the wider African American ‘daily routines of discrimination.’ Holiday called this song her ‘personal protest’ against racism. As Davis argues, ‘it is difficult to listen to Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit without recognising the plea for human solidarity, and thus for the racial equality of black and white people.’ Its power and message remains as potent and sadly relevant as ever.
Blues Legacies and Black Feminism should be required reading for anyone with even a passing interest in music history. Reading such meticulously researched and intelligently considered analysis of the music of these women and their legacies is a privilege. We must continue to do all we can to celebrate their music and keep their voices alive.
If you have read Angela Davis’ book or are a fan of these women let me know your thoughts in the comments or on social media.
The book I have chosen for September’s book club is Good Booty by Ann Powers. Feel free to read along and join in the next discussion!