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PCR # 99 (Vol. 3, No. 7) This edition is for the week of February 11--17, 2002.

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The Enlightenment by Terence Nuzum

Part 4:
Women and the Blues
Mamie Smith
Mamie Smith

The Blues (noun): songs of misery, usually played and sang by a black male with dusty clothes, a slouched hat, beaten-up guitar and a ramblin' lifestyle.

That's the blues as defined by most people today, but in the early 20s before Son House, Charlie Patton and the rest growled out their gritty delta variant, the blues had a different sound and image. In the first half of the 20s, atypical blues artists were women. Usually they dressed in flapper styles and crooned songs of sorrow to jazz accompaniment. In these early days women ruled this new musical form, it wasn't until later that men dominated and all but wiped out the blues women's commercial and artistic impact.

The woman's reign in the blues was from about 1923 to 1927. Starting in 1920 with Mamie Smith's recording "Crazy Blues", an achievment considering race records had not yet come into their own at this time. "Crazy Blues" was the first-ever blues recording, making the first blues recording artist a woman.

Bessie Smith
Bessie Smith
It was in 1923, though, that the blues became popular with Bessie Smith's recording of "Downhearted Blues". Bessie started her career in early minstrel shows and went to recording auditions as early as 1921 but was evidently turned down for sounding too raw and earthy. Columbia Records producer Frank Walker(who later discovered Hank Williams) saw potential in Bessie and signed her to a one-year contract. Her Columbia recordings were hits, much to the dismay of Edison, Black Swan, Emerson, and Okeh, all companies who turned her down. Walker also proved himself to be a good marketer when he paired Bessie's "Downhearted Blues" with pianist Clarence William's "Gulf Coast Blues". The record sold almost 800,000 copies eclipsing Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues" from 1920. Bessie's other hits include "Alexander's Ragtime Band" & "There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight".

Bessie usually recorded under optimal studio conditions, but occasionally her recordings are backed by less-than-fair jazz bands who are heard over her voice too well for their own good.

Most women blues singers, like Bessie, would cut a fine line between Vaudeville and the blues. But it was Bessie who took the rural blues and fused them with pop sensibilities of the time.

Ma Rainy with Tom Dorsey on piano
Ma Rainey with Thomas Dorsey on piano
The other great female blues singer of the 20s was Gertrude Pridgett "Ma" Rainey. Rainey like Bessie was a veteran of minstrel and traveling tent shows. In a rare interview she told folk scholar John W. Work that she first heard the blues in 1902. That would be a year earlier than when W.C. Handy first heard it in Mississippi. Rainey said she heard a young girl singing in a strange fashion about how she lost her man. Rainey later used it in her own performances at the tent shows and when asked what is was, she replied, "It's the blues." So it's quite possible Rainey first coined the term and not Hart Wand as assumed.

Rainey's blues were also backed by a jazz band like most women blues singers of the time. But unlike Bessie Smith and the rest, Rainey had a deep, throaty voice and was linked closer to the rural south of Charlie Patton than the vaudeville flapper style of the Jazz age.

Rainey's records were not as sophisticated, technically speaking, as, say, Bessie Smith's, but her lyrics were far superior, especially on "Bo Weavil Blues", a song about love lost.

I went downtown
I got me a hat
I brought it back home
I laid it on the shelf
I looked at my bed
I'm gettin' tired of sleeping by myself

She recorded her first record in 1923 and recorded all thru the early 20s and 30s until her death in 1939. Her most popular song is "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom".

There were numerous women blues singers recording in the 1920s--almost too many to count--most of which are now forgotten. These include: Ida Cox, Sara Martin, and Sippie Wallace.

Furniture Man Blues ad
Victoria Spivey was perhaps the longest recording star of them all, her first recording was in 1926 ("Black Snake Blues"), her last in the 1960s on her own Spivey label. Her biggest hit was "Furniture Man Blues" with Lonnie Johnson on guitar.

Lucille Bogan
Lucille Bogan

The most interesting of these women was Lucille Bogan who apparently had ties to the black underworld. In March of 1930 Bogan recorded "Alley Boogie", her first hit. Bogan's songs more than any others were filled with mostly taboo themes such as a prostitute's financial problems during the depression in "Tricks Ain't Walking No More". Bogan also added lesbianism to her list of themes on songs like "Women Won't Need No Men No More" & "B.D.(bull dyke) Blues".

In the mid 30s Bogan moved to Los Angeles and on her first day there was killed in an automobile accident.

By the late 1920s men were taking over the blues market. Few women survived commercially in the 1930s, but some did very well, like the great Memphis Minnie.

Lizzie Douglas, a.k.a., Memphis Minnie was born in Louisiana in 1897. Her family moved to Memphis in 1910 and there, Minnie heard the blues of various local Jug Bands and banjo pickers. From then on she was hooked, and after receiving a guitar for Christmas, she was on her way. By her teens she was performing on street corners for nickels and dimes.

Apparently, Minnie was a hellcat. Any man who tried to fool with her when she didn't want to be fooled with, she would go at them with anything she could find, knife, gun, or broken bottle.

Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy
Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy
Minnie began recording in 1929 with her partner, Joe McCoy, on second guitar. Minnie played the guitar parts and usually sang lead, with Joe as back-up. They recorded dozens of records over the next 5 years. Joe and Minnie married, but eventually split probably due to the fact that Minnie's superior guitar skill was complimented over Joe's by all that heard them play, leading to tension in the relationship. Minnie's last partner was Little Son Joe. They recorded her biggest hits in 1940-41 "Me & My Chauffeur" and "Black Rat Swing", on both of these Minnie plays her newly-acquired electric guitar.

Minnie's guitar playing was excellent and easily stands up to the greats like Son House and Charlie Patton. Memphis Minnie was, without a doubt, the greatest female blues artist of her era and ranks among the best of the blues singers, regardless of gender.

By the late 30s, men were the dominant force in the blues, all but erasing women's place in the genre. But the women blue singers recorded some of the most accessible and earliest of all blues records, which is no small accomplishment. If "Ma" Rainey's claim holds true, it may, in fact, have been a woman, not a man, who first heard and coined the term for this important musical form.

NEXT: The Holy Blues

"The Enlightenment" is ©2002 by Terence Nuzum.  Webpage design and all graphics herein (except where otherwise noted) are creations of Nolan B. Canova.  Contents of Nolan's Pop Culture Review is ©2002 by Nolan B. Canova.