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Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude…

Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and… (original 1999; edition 1999)

by Angela Y. Davis (Author)

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387556,154 (4)9
Angela Davis's book is a complete revelation to me and a serious re-education.' Toni Morrison From the author of 'Women, Race & Class' comes a brilliant analysis of the blues which provides the historical, social and political contexts with which to reinterpret the performances and lyrics of Gertrude 'Ma' Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday as the articulation of a black, working- class, feminist consciousness at odds with mainstream American culture.'… (more)
Title:Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday
Authors:Angela Y. Davis (Author)
Info:Vintage (1999), Edition: 1st Vintage Books Ed, 464 pages
Collections:Your library

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Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday by Angela Y. Davis (1999)

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This review is a short version made to fit GoodReads' character limits. I strongly suggest that the reader read the FULL review under my profile's writing:


I've 'known' of Davis for decades as a black radical who was persecuted by then-Governor-Reagan &, like any black radical, the FBI. I've always been impressed by her as someone who managed to not get killed, someone who stuck out this racist insanity & who also managed to be a university professor.

I expected this to be an impassioned study by a person in the thick of things. Instead, it sometimes seems like a hack work written by someone to meet academic requirements. It seems as if it were written in full knowledge that it wd have a guaranteed market, an overpriced market (university bookstores are total ripoffs). While I'd certainly give Davis credit for being an authentic & impassioned politically active person, this bk seems superficial - a niche marketing product if there ever was one - a textbook written to burgeon the literature for Black Studies & Women's Studies - 2 areas that had to be fought tooth & nail for in academia but that're now probably well enuf established so that ditching them wd give academic institutions a bad name. DESPITE THIS, as I look thru it again to write this review, it IS scholarly & I certainly learned from it - despite my taking issue w/ much of the content & w/ its presentation.

One of the things that was perhaps most valuable about this bk for me was Davis' explication of how the blues represent a focus on post-slavery freedoms: the freedom to choose one's own sexual partners, the freedom to travel, the freedom of the women blues singers' ability to escape domestic drudgery. These are all points well taken.

On the 1st p (p 3) of the 1st chapter (entitled "I Used to be Your Sweet Mama") she begins w/:

"Like most forms of popular music, African-American blues lyrics talk about love. What is distinctive about the blues, however, particularly in relation to other American popular musical forms of the 1920s and 1930s, is their intellectual independence and representational freedom. One of the most obvious ways in which blues lyrics deviated from that era's established popular musical culture was their provocative and pervasive sexual - including homosexual - imagery.

"By contrast, the popular song formulas of the period demanded saccharine and idealized nonsexual depictions of heterosexual love relationships. Those aspects of lived love relationships that were not compatible with the dominant, etherealized ideology of love - such as extramarital relationships, domestic violence, and the ephemerality of many sexual partnerships - were largely banished from the established popular musical culture. [..]"

Now Davis' purpose is to call attn to black feminist content. Her intent is NOT to do a study of music of the era - & I don't get the impression that she's particularly knowledgeable about THAT subject. Alas, this is a recurring weakness of the bk. The 3 women she chooses to focus on (Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, & Billie Holiday) were probably chosen b/c they're 3 of the most well-known figures. They are NOT, however, the women that I wd necessarily choose to represent sexual forthrightness, etc.. & I think that Davis' choices are 'safe' choices - choices that can be referenced in academia w/o causing too much of a scandal b/c of their relation to pop culture & MONEY.

Take, eg, "Ma" Rainey's "Shave 'Em Dry":

"Shave 'Em Dry" - Gertrude Rainey & William Jackson - 1924


Going downtown to spread the news
State Street women wearin' brogan shoes
Hey, hey, hey, daddy, let me shave 'em dry

If it wasn't for their powder and their store-bought hair
State Street gals couldn't go nowhere
Hey, hey, hey, daddy, let me shave 'em dry

There's one thing I can't understand
Some women drivin' State Street like a man
Hey, hey, hey, daddy, let me shave 'em dry

Went to the show the other night
Everybody on State Street was tryin' to fight
Hey, hey, hey, daddy, let me shave 'em dry

Ain't crazy 'bout my yellow, I ain't wild about my brown
You can't tell the difference when the sun goes down
Hey, hey, hey, daddy, let me shave 'em dry


Now the expression "shave 'em dry" is pretty clearly evocative of rough sex in wch pubic contact is so forcefully grinding that the hair wd be shaved off in the process - but Rainey & William Jackson's version doesn't make this explicit.

Despite the sexual content in Rainey's "Shave 'Em Dry", the lyrics are still somewhat encoded in euphemistic language that wd be mostly understood by people sensitive to the culture. Contrarily, Lucille Bogan's (aka Bessie Jackson's) version of "Shave 'Em Dry" (probably recorded 11 yrs later on March 5, 1935) is much more explicit:

Here's my transcription from the recording available on the "Copulatin' Blues" LP (STASH ST-101):

I got nipples on my titties, big as the end of my thumb,
I got somethin' between my legs'll make a dead man cum
Aoowooh, daddy, baby won't you shave 'em dry
Won't you grind me, baby, grind me 'til I cry

Say, I fucked all night & all the night full, baby
& I feel just like I wanna fuck some more
Oh, great god, daddy, grind me honey, shave me dry
And when you hear me yowl baby, want you to shave it dry.

I got nipples on my titties big as the end of my thumb,
Daddy you can have 'em any time you want and you can make 'em cum
AwooOhhh.. Daddy, shave me dry
& I'll give you somethin', baby, swear it'll make you cry

I'm gonna turn back my mattress & let you oil my springs
I want you to grind me, daddy, 'til the bells do ring
Awwww, daddy, want you to shave 'em dry.,
Oh pray God daddy, you can shave 'em baby, won't you try?

Now, fucking is the thing that'll take me to heaven
I'll be fucking in the studio 'til the clock strikes 11
Ooooh, daddy, daddy, shave 'em dry
I will fuck you baby, honey, I can make you cry

Now, your nuts hang down like a damn bell-clapper
& your dick stands up like a steeple,
your god-damned asshole stand open like a church door
& the crab walks in like people
Ooow, shit!



Baby, won't you shave 'em dry!

A big sow gets fat from eating corn
& a pig gets fat from suckin'
You should see this whore, fat like I am,
Great God I got fat from fuckin'

My back is made of whalebone, & my cock is made of brass,
And my fuckin's made for workin' men, two dollars round to fit my ass,
Wooo, Daddy, shave 'em dry!

To me, Davis was playing it safe here. Either she didn't know about Bogan's version or she avoided it - preferring to stay in territory that wdn't discredit her in academia. Bogan REALLY puts it out there - presumably she really was a prostitute & this REALLY was a whorehouse blues song. In contrast, Rainey, too, was restrained by the marketplace - albeit somewhat less so than the dominant culture of the time. But lest one think that sexual metaphors are absent from white culture then, it wd pay to examine this novelty jazz lyric ALSO FROM 1924:

I'm Gonna Bring a Watermelon to My Girl Tonight - Billy Jones & Ernest Hare
(Edison-51365 (9583))

All the boys love Mary, little Mary Brown
But she's so contrary, when they come around
Only Tommy Tucker ever gets a kiss
When the fellows corner him, he tells them this:

"When I brought an apple, she let me hold her hand
When I brought an orange, we kissed to beat the band
When I brought bananas, she hugged me all her might
I'm gonna bring a watermelon to my girl tonight"

I do have to give Davis credit for being on top of the class & religious issues inherent in the blues' position in overall black culture & beyond. On p 43, in the "Mama's Got the Blues" chapter, Davis writes:

"When the National Association of Colored Women was founded in 1896, it chose for its motto "Lifting as We Climb." This motto called upon the most educated, most moral, and most affluent African-American women to recognize the extent to which the dominant culture's racist perceptions linked them with the least educated, most immoral, and most impoverished black women. Mary Church Terrell described this cross-class relationship as a determination "to come into the closest possible touch with the masses of our women, through whom the womanhood of our people is always judged." More explicitly, "[s]elf-preservation demands that [educated black women] go among the lowly, illiterate and even the vicious, to whom they are bound by ties of race and sex . . . to reclaim them." While this posture was certainly admirable and helped to produce a distinguished tradition of progressive activism among black middle-class women from the NACW to the National Council of Negro Women and similar organizations today, what was and remains problematic is the premise that middle-class women embody a standard their poorer sisters should be encouraged to emulate."

& on p 124 she writes:

"Blues singers were (and to a certain extent still are) associated with the Devil because they celebrated those dimensions of human existence considered evil and immoral according to the tenets of Christianity. But precisely because they offered enlightenment on love and sexuality, blues singers often have been treated as secular counterparts to Christian ministers , recognized by their constituencies as no less important authorities in their respective realms. However, from the vantage point of devout Christians, blues singers are unmitigated sinners and the creativity they demonstrate and the worldview they advocate are in flagrant defiance of the community's prevailing religious beliefs."

BRAVO! Take Bogan's "Now, your nuts hang down like a damn bell-clapper & your dick stands up like a steeple, your god-damned asshole stand open like a church door & the crab walks in like people"? Bogan is delightfully blasphemous - she embraces sexuality wholeheartedly & doesn't buy into the bourgeois church world at all.

I shd point out, though, that in my transcription of one of Bogan's verses I hear: "Now, fucking is the thing that'll take me to heaven, I'll be fucking in the studio 'til the clock strikes 11" but the Paul Oliver transcription that I consulted online for comparison reads it as: "Now fuckin's one thing that'll take me to Hell, I'll be fuckin' in the studio just to fuck that to leather". Now I don't know wch is correct but the "heaven" vs "hell" cd be taken as meaning 2 very different things.

& this is where my own interpretation of the subject may diverge dramatically from Davis' own. While Davis credits the blues w/ being more sexually open & 'realistic' in relation to working class sexuality than the dominant culture's songs were at the time I think she overemphasizes this to make her point. Both cultures, as she notes, center around 'love' songs - & I think that this connection is stronger than she gives it credit for being. BOTH cultures are largely in denial of what 'love' consists of, both are, IMO, delusional - & these delusions run thru human history even to the present.

MOST of the songs sung by the 3 central singers are songs of unsatisfactory 'love'. What does this mean? Well.. I think that 'love' usually means a satisfaction of biological demands - sugar-coated w/ delusions of emotional significance that aren't referred to as instincts generated by DNA demanding replication. Such explicit references to BIOLOGY W/O ROMANTICISM go against the cultural grain of MOST or ALL cultures as far as I can tell. & this is a much stronger bond between the blues & dominant culture than the differences are differing.

Blues song after blues song express misery at the singers' men having left them. I maintain that it's an across-the-board 'need' of humans to be sexually satisfied & to interpret this satisfaction as emotional. SO, when a lover leaves there's despair b/c one is deprived of that satisfaction. What goes unacknowledged is that if DNA rules, as I think it does, the reason for the partner leaving has more to do w/ the biological replicative imperative than anything else: if children aren't produced, the partners separate to try other seedings; if children ARE produced, the partners separate to try to diversify the seedings. This may seem to be ignoring homosexual drives but that's not my purpose: I think sexual drives are instinctually replicative but are navigated by 'higher' cognitive functions that substantially bypass the replicative.

& here's where I'm going to stick my critical neck out even further: it seems to be underacknowledged, again, that fucking might be very popular w/ poor people b/c it's FREE & you don't necessarily have to have money to do it. SEX BRINGS GREAT PLEASURE - hence my reading of Lucille Bogan going to "heaven" rather than "hell" thru it.

Again, I stick my neck out here knowing full well that people will hate what I have to say - but here's MY working class realism: The harder a person's economic life, the more likelihood there is of arrested development - hence the emotional immaturity of 'love' songs in wch 'unfaithful' partners get threatened w/ murder. What do I mean? If a person is forced by economic conditions into working at an early age, they're much less likely to have the luxury of developing emotionally. Their development is arrested (ie: stunted) by having to deal w/ adult problems at a non-adult age.

Take the example of a prostitute that a friend of mine regularly went to as a client. Her whore name was "Sugar". As a child, Sugar lived w/ her mom, her stepdad, & her brother. The mom was fucking the brother, the stepdad wanted to fuck Sugar. So when the mom found out about the latter what did she do? Kick out the stepdad? NO WAY! She kicked out Sugar at the ripe old age of 12 to 14! So what does Sugar, an adolescent w/ no work skills, do to support herself? Surprise, surprise, she gets picked up by a pimp & exploited. &, yet, she still has teddy bears & fantasies that a person allowed to develop more gradually wd grow out of as adolescence is replaced by late teens, early twenties, etc..

& this IS, often, a working class (or impoverished class) problem that isn't race-specific. The fantasies of 'faithful love' referred to in blues songs are common to the arrested development of people who're forced into harsh exploited life before they have a chance to develop enuf emotional maturity to see the foolishness of such fantasies. & Davis' bk doesn't reference this at all.

But, then, just when I start to get annoyed w/ Davis, she teaches me something important - in this case about the "catastrophic and tragic floods of the Mississippi River" in 1927 & the way in wch the relief programs were used as yet-another racist suppression of black people. Shades of Katrina, eh?! All in all, I found myself more interested in the songs like this that deviate from the overriding theme of 'unfaithful' lovers. This wd include Joe Davis' "Mean Old Bedbug Blues" - particularly poignant in today's time of the resurgence of the bedbug infestation.

Alas, I think that Davis really stretches it when she writes that "Billie Holiday's songs were subversive in that they offered special and privileged insights about the dominant culture. She sang songs produced by its rapidly developing popular-culture industry. Unlike Gertrude Rainey and Bessie Smith, she did not concentrate on the musical creations of black culture. Rather, she boldly entered the domain of white love as it filtered through the commodified images and market strategies of Tin Pan Alley."

Can't Holiday just be HUMAN? Can't she be primarily a person WHO LOVED TO SING? & who sang what she did b/c of the way she was slotted into the marketplace? I assume she gave whatever she sang her own natural inflection but does that transform her into someone whose "songs were subversive"? I think Davis is straining to fit Holiday into Davis' own political agenda. As I write this, I'm listening to Holiday sing "Wherever You Are" &, nah, I don't hear any 'subversion' in it at all. It seems to me that she sings it pretty straight.

Davis comments extensively on the significance of Holiday's singing of the truly great landmark anti-lynching song "Strange Fruit" in 1939 & onward & I'm not going to debate its awe-inspiring importance. I will, however, point out that other protest songs predate "Strange Fruit" that Davis might not know about:

"Chinaman, Laundryman"
- poem by H. T. Tsiang
- set to music by Ruth Crawford Seeger

lyrics gotten from:

Chinaman, Laundryman
Language: English

Don't call me "man"!
I am worse than a slave.

Wash! Wash!
Why can I wash away
The dirt of others' clothes
But not the hatred of my heart?
My skin is yellow,
Does my yelow skin color the clothes?
Why do you pay me less
For the same work?
Clever boss!
You know
How to scatter the seeds of hatred
Among your ignorant slaves.

Iron! Iron!
Why can I smooth away
The wrinkle
Of others' dresses
But not the miseries of my heart?
Why should I come to America
To wash clothes?
Do you think "Chinamen" in China
Wear no dresses?

I came to America
Three days after my marriage.
When can I see her again?
Only the almighty "Dollar" knows!

Dry! Dry!
Why do clothes dry,
But not my tears?
I work
Twelve hours a day,
He pays
Fifteen dollars a week.
My boss says,
Go back to China,
If you don't feel satisfied!
Unlimited hours of toil:
Two silver dollars a week,
You can find a job."
Thank you, Boss,
For you remind me.
I know
Bosses are robbers everywhere!
Chinese boss says:
"You Chinaman,
Me Chinaman,
Come work for me --
Work for your fellow countryman!
By the way,
You 'Wong', me 'Wong' --
Do we not belong to same family?
Ha! ha!
We are cousins!
O yes!
You 'Hai Shan', me 'Hai Shan',
Do we not come from same district?
O come work for me;
I will treat you better!"
GET away from here!
What is the difference,
When you come to exploit me?

Don't call me "Chinaman"!
Yes, I am a "Laundryman"!
The workingman!
Don't call me "Chinaman"!
I am the Worldman!
["The International Soviet
Shall be his human race!"]1

All you workingmen!
Here is the brush
Made of [Marxism]2
Here is the soap
Made of [Leninism]3.
Let us all
wash with the [blood]4!
Let us all
Press with the iron!
Then we shall have
A clean world!

1: not set by Crawford-Seeger.
2: Crawford-Seeger: "study"
3: Crawford-Seeger: "action"
4: Crawford-Seeger: "brush"

PP 200 to 358 of Blues Legacies.. consist of transcriptions of every song recorded by Rainey & Smith. On p xvi of the Introduction, Davis writes: "I should point out here that these transcriptions are my own." If Davis truly transcribed all of these w/o the assistance of students or interns or other academic help or online sources I have to compliment her! This wd be an enormous task. This bk is a valuable resource for these transcriptions alone. Additionally, there's a 14pp "Works Consulted" appendix that wd probably be very useful to other researchers. ( )
  tENTATIVELY | Apr 3, 2022 |
Interesting ideas but I didn't quite buy into her thesis. Yes, I can see the blues as a reflection of working-class black people's lives; yes I can see them including an exuberant celebration of black women's autonomous sexuality; but as a form of proto-feminist consciousness-raising? No, no evidence for that interpretation.
As for seeing Billie Holliday's performance of the vapid jazz pop-songs that came afterwards as some form of protest - no evidence for that either. And I don't think the author truely believes that either - she spends a whole chapter trying to squeeze Holliday's general body of work into this mold, then a whole other chapter on her one genuine protest song Strange Fruit.
Worth a read, and also has the author's transcription of most of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith's recorded songs, which can sometimes be hard to make out. ( )
  SChant | Jun 18, 2021 |
This was great, but a very slow read since I had to stop and listen to the songs to really appreciate Davis' analysis. I did not quite finish it before my e-book loan expired, I should check it out again to finish it. ( )
  gabarito | Feb 28, 2020 |
Davis explains that the Blues genre belongs to women just as much as it does men. Davis stated that the Blues provided a space where women could express themselves in new ways. By analyzing the work of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, Davis shows us the many themes their work embodied. Davis reminds us that the Blues, like the spirituals sang during slavery, are the collective property of the community.

Davis' primary focus was on the contributions of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith to the legacy of the Blues as well as a breakdown of their lyrics. This portion of the work seemed to go in circles and in my opinon there was a lot of unecessary dissecting. The research was thorough and insightful with some high points. There was little shared about the personal lives of Smith and Rainey outside of their sexuality and assertiveness. It was pointed out that even though their lyrics detailed graphic domestic violence there was little to no reference to the sexual assaults that were common during the time. To many, the songs sung by Smith and Rainey depicted women who tolerated violence for the sake of love.

Davis shed light on how the Blues genre was shunned and thought as "low" and "primitive" by the Black Arts movement of the 1920s known as the Harlem Renaissance. Whites of the time thought the genre to be childish, irrational, and bizarre. Two giants of the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, embraced the Blues. Rainey and Smith sang about the "hoodoo" that Hurston studied and experienced. Hughes dedicated much of his work to the Blues.

The latter two chapters were devoted to Billie Holiday. Both chapters felt rushed and I never really understood the main objective of the first one. Davis did explain how Strange Fruit was birthed from a poem written by Lewis Allen and not Holiday viewing an actual lynching. Not ever singing it the exact same way twice, Holiday wanted Strange Fruit to invoke solidarity among its listeners. From the research one can tell that Holiday was moved into the position of a voice for social justice.

I could not relate to the feminist perspective that Davis attempted to give voice to from the lyrics these women sang. Like one of the writers referenced in the text, I personally see the Blues as complaint and no protest. Davis made argument against such thought which like she was reaching. These women were entertainers. They related to the working class and sang their "blues." Holiday was a troubled soul that found freedom in the way she sang the lyrics to the songs she was given. Davis included some amazing "side bar" tidbits that were intriguing and charged. There was graphic details of the lynching of Claude Neal in FL and how the devastation of the 1927, Mississippi River flood affected Blacks. As well developed as Davis's thoughts were, I found the writing to be quite monotonous. ( )
  pinkcrayon99 | Feb 19, 2013 |
An excellent analysis of early women's blues as a social critique. ( )
  TinuvielDancing | Jan 19, 2010 |
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Angela Davis's book is a complete revelation to me and a serious re-education.' Toni Morrison From the author of 'Women, Race & Class' comes a brilliant analysis of the blues which provides the historical, social and political contexts with which to reinterpret the performances and lyrics of Gertrude 'Ma' Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday as the articulation of a black, working- class, feminist consciousness at odds with mainstream American culture.'

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