Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday by Angela Y. Davis Download (read online) free eBook .pdf.epub.kindle

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

From one of this country’s most important intellectuals comes a brilliant analysis of the blues tradition that examines the careers of three crucial black women blues singers through a feminist lens. Angela Davis provides the historical, social, and political contexts with which to reinterpret the performances and lyrics of Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Ho
El

Sep 30, 2017

rated it
really liked it

Recommended to El by:
The F-Word

I thought I was only halfway through the book, but then it was over. The second half of the book are the lyrics to the songs recorded by the three singers (Rainey, Smith, and Holiday) and then Notes. That was a startling ending is all I am sayin.

If you do a quick Wikipedia search for “blues music”, as I just did, you will find the page filled with at least 11 pictures of male blues artists like John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Eric Clapton. Some other people, too, but only three of the

If you do a quick Wikipedia search for “blues music”, as I just did, you will find the page filled with at least 11 pictures of male blues artists like John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Eric Clapton. Some other people, too, but only three of the images feature female blues performers over the years.

This isn’t surprisingly, necessarily, and of course it’s ridiculous to use Wikipedia as “proof” of anything, but it is still disappointing that women’s role in blues music is still almost entirely ignored. Angela Davis had an issue with that too, and that’s how this book came about. Her focus is on Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and of course, Billie Holiday, though the most in-depth exploration was on the music of Rainey and Smith. One could argue that everyone knows about Billie Holiday, so there’s less that needs to be said. But I still felt more could have been included.

The book isn’t just about the women, however, and that was a relief to me. As with any artist, it’s difficult to discuss the art without discussing the artist, but Davis wanted to discuss the feminism behind the music. I have heard it argued that blues music is not feminist: it cannot be, it’s all about women being beat by their boyfriends.

Davis argues that it’s this storytelling that made these singers and their songs feminist after all. Their songs brought their stories (common stories, so whether or not they were their specific stories, they were stories that people recognized and could relate to) into the public sphere. People like to think of domestic violence as a private sphere kind of thing, like what happens in the home stays in the home, don’t air your dirty laundry, etc. etc. whatever else people like to say to be able to do whatever they want to their lady-friends because women are property.

For these women to sing about being beaten by their partners in an open way brought it out into the public for the public to discuss, contemplate, whatever. Suddenly it was something that was out there, not just being kept hush-hush. Regardless of how it seemed the females in these songs seem to feel about their place in life, just the presentation of this world that women live in was rather groundbreaking.

In addition to domestic violence, Davis discusses on other themes that showed up in blues music from these singers: domesticity, sexuality, spirituality, politics, and protest. One should remember the context when reading the lyrics to the music, that slavery never really ended and that is what these singers expressed in their songs, that the form of slavery has changed, but it’s still slavery, something we’re still good to remember today if we pay the fuck attention.

At the time Bessie Smith’s 1927 song Backwater Blues was released, the Mississippi River flooded its banks: “Twenty-six thousand square miles of land were inundated, causing over 600,000 people, more than half of whom were black, to lose their homes.” (p109)

Davis went on to write:

The seasonal rains causing the Mississippi River to flood its banks are part of the unalterable course of nature, but the sufferings of untold numbers of black people who lived in towns and the countryside along the river also were attributable to racism. Black people were often considered expendable, and their communities were forced to take the overflow of backwaters in order to reduce the pressure on the levees. While most white people remained safe, black people suffered the wrath of the Mississippi, nature itself having been turned into a formidable weapon of racism.
(p109)

Hm. Sound familiar? That was in 1927, and yet it sounds to what is happening in 2017 in various places.

“While relief services were free to white victims, black victims were often informed that they would have to pay cash for food and other necessities. Destitute, they were forced to take loans from plantation owners, who later forced them to work off their alleged debt.” (p109-10)

This was the world Bessie Smith lived in, and the world she sang about. Again, these were topics that were often silenced or not openly discussed, and for any of these artists to sing about these injustices were allowing people to look at the issues instead of simply turning their heads.

I found this book incredibly eye-opening. I had listened to all of these women sing, but listening to them again alongside Davis’s text is helpful. Listen to their voices, listen to their words, and really understand what they were saying. It’s not always as obvious as it might appear at first listen.
…more

Lauren

Jun 13, 2007

rated it
it was amazing

Recommends it for:
blues fans!

WARNING: Will turn you into a rabid blues addict.