From Angela Y. Davis' Introduction to her book _BLUES LEGACIES AND BLACK FEMINISM_

When I first began researching the literature on blues and jazz women I discovered that, with some significant exceptions, the vast majority comprised either biographies or technical studies within the disciplines of music and musicology. I am not suggesting that investigations of these artists' lives and music are not interesting. However, what I wanted to know more about was the way their work addressed urgent social issues and helped to shape collective modes of black consciousness. Because most studies of the blues have tended to be gendered implicitly as male, those that have engaged with the social implications of this music have overlooked or marginalized women.

When I decided to look closely at the music produced by Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday, what I expected to find was a strong consciousness of race against a backdrop of prevailing patriarchal constructions of gender. This is certainly the impression one gets from the biographical material on the three singers. In fact, the original title of my study was Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday: Black Women's Music and Social Consciousness. However, the more I listened to their recorded performances--of songs composed both by the artists themselves and by others--the more I realized that their music could serve as a rich terrain for examining a historical feminist consciousness that reflected the lives of working-class black communities. That their aesthetic representations of the politics of gender and sexuality are informed by and interwoven with their representations of race and class makes their work all the more provocative.

What gives the blues such fascinating possibilities of sustaining emergent feminist consciousness is the way they often construct seemingly antagonistic relationships as noncontradictory oppositions. A female narrator in a women's blues song who represents herself as entirely subservient to male desire might simultaneously express autonomous desire and a refusal to allow her mistreating lover to drive her to psychic despair. Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith both recorded versions of Herbert and Russell's "Oh Papa Blues? These are the lyrics Rainey sings:


Just like a rainbow I am faded away
My daddy leaves me 'most every day
But he don't mean me no good, why?
Because I only wish he would
I've almost gone insane
I'm forever tryin' to call his name
Oh, papa, think when you away from home
You just don't want me now, wait and see
You'll find some other man rnakin' love to me, now
Papa, papa, you ain't got no mama now.

Bessie Smith's recording is entitled "Oh Daddy Blues" and these are her first and last stanzas:


Just like a flower I'm fading away
The doctor calls to see me most every day
But he don't do me no good
Why? Because I'm lonesome for you
And if you care for me, then you will listen to my plea
Oh, daddy, think when you all alone
You know that you are getting old
You'll miss the way I baked your jelly roll
Then, daddy, daddy, you won't have no mama at all.

I should point out here that these transcriptions are my own. A large part of the project of producing this study has been the transcription of the entire bodies of Rainey's and Smith's available recordings, 252 songs in all,