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:
Bessie Smith's recording is entitled "Oh Daddy Blues" and these are her first and last stanzas:
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, some of which are very difficult to hear. When I began this aspect of my research, compact discs had not yet begun to be mass-marketed, and I was working strictly from Vinyl reproductions. When their work was reissued on CD's the transcription work became considerably easier, yet many of the original recordings that are reproduced on CD have deteriorated so much as to render them nearly inaudible in places. The second section of this study, following my critical examination of Rainey's, Smith's, and Holiday's work, contains my transcriptions of all of Rainey's and Smith's extant recordings. The transcriptions are included here because both blues women frequently improvised even as they sang precomposed lyrics that were not always their own. This process of revision obviously had a significant impact on the recordings to which we have access today, and it is on the basis of these recordings--these often revised renditions of the lyrics that appeared on the lead sheets from which Rainey and Smith worked-that I have worked out my own analyses of the songs as they were performed. Thus, while other transcriptions exist in numerous studies of the music and of the artists themselves, my own listenings have revealed numerous inaccuracies in those transcriptions. For this reason, I have chosen to work with firsthand transcriptions, which no doubt contain their own inaccuracies, and for which I take complete responsibility. As the complete lyrics of Rainey's and Smith's songs are not available elsewhere, I have included them in this book in order to facilitate further research on this material. I have not included transcriptions of Billie Holiday's recordings because the popular material that constitutes her body of work remains readily available in print today. Moreover, her originality consists not so much in what she sang, but rather in how she sang the popular songs of her era.
In the contemporary period, which is marked by a popular recognition of the politicalization of sexuality, the blues constitute an exceptionally rich site for feminist investigation. The overarching sexual themes that define the content of the blues form point the way toward a consideration of the historical politics of black sexuality. Considering the stringent taboos on representations of sexuality that characterized most dominant discourses of the time, the blues constitute a privileged discursive site.
In this book, I attempt to explore the feminist implications of the recorded performances of three women: one who stands at the beginning of the classic blues tradition, another who pushes the blues form to its very limits and begins to use popular song as a blues vehicle, and yet another who, in moving away from the blues and establishing jazz vocals with a genius and originality that has yet to be surpassed, remains solidly anchored in the blues tradition. All of their performances illuminate the politics of gender and sexuality in working-class black communities.
Whether we listen to these musicians today primarily for pleasure or for purposes of research--which is not to suggest that pleasure is without its critical dimensions or that research is without its pleasures--there is a great deal to be learned from their bodies of work about quotidian expressions of feminist consciousness. These quotidian expressions of feminist consciousness are what I attempt to accentuate in this book. In this sense, my study is far less ambitious than a work like Daphne Duval Harrison's Black Pearls. Whereas Harrison's fine investigation comprehensively takes up the classic blues tradition, mine is confined to three artists, two of whom--Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith--decisively defined the classic blues era, and one of whom--Billie Holiday--ushered in the period of modern iazz, recording her first song shortly after Bessie Smith recorded her last. Harrison's work examines the blues women of the 1920s as pivotal figures in the assertion of black women's ideas and ideals from the standpoint of the working class and the poor. It reveals their dynamic role as spokespersons and interpreters of the dreams, harsh realities, and tragicomedies of the black experience in the first three decades of this century; their role in the continuation and development of black music in America; their contributions to blues poetry and performance. Further, it expands the base of knowledge about the role of black women in the creation and development of American popular culture; illustrates their modes and means for coping successfully with gender-related discrimination and exploitation; and demonstrates an emerging model for the working woman--one who is sexually independent, self-sufficient, creative, and trend-setting?
I hope my study will complement Harrison's in the sense that it attempts to accentuate the feminist contributions of two pivotal women of the classic blues era, as well as those of the most significant jazz woman, the story of whose troubled life has persistently overshadowed the important contributions she made as an artist.
Contemporary blues and jazz women come from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds, and certainly the audience for this music resides not only within but far beyond the borders of black culture. With the global-ization of music distribution-indeed, with such developments as unauthorized CD production in some countries--the scope of black music and its historically broad cultural implications can no longer be confined to African-American communities. In this context, feminist interpretations of blues and jazz women's legacies can contribute to an understanding of feminist consciousness that crosses racial and class borders. I hope that readers of this book will also read, for example, Maria Herrera-Sobek's feminist interpretations of corridos, Mexican folk ballads. Moreover, beyond the realm of musical culture, many feminists of color are rethinking mainstream feminist historiographies, not simply to carve out a place for women of color, but rather to contest the very validity of the discourses employed in those works). At the same time that I see my own work as connected with these various projects, I hope the arguments I propose in this book will make a specific intervention into current popular debates regarding the legitimacy of women of color feminisms, and of black feminisms in particular.
Twenty-five years after the second-wave debates on what counts as feminism, popular assumptions that the historical origins of feminism are white stubbornly persist in many black communities, despite significant feminist (and womanist) activism and research. The tendency to construct women like Anita Hill as race traitors is a dramatic by-product of the recalcitrant idea that black women who speak out against black men are following in the footsteps of white feminists. The fact that a productive debate about the problematic gender politics (and indeed the overarching conservatism) of the Million Man March failed to emerge--and that feminists like Kimberl~ Crenshaw, Luke Harris, Marcia Gillespie, Paula Giddings, Jewel Jackson McCabe, Gina Dent, and I were harshly criticized for even desiring to initiate such a debate--are yet further examples of widespread views in black communities that race must always take precedence, and that race is implicitly gendered as male.
A book like Blues Legacies and Black Feminism will not popularize feminism in black communities. However, I do hope it will demonstrate that there are multiple African-American feminist traditions. I hope it will demonstrate that feminist traditions are not only written, they are oral, and that these oralities reveal not only rewrought African cultural traces, but also the genius with which former slaves forged new traditions that simultaneously contested the slave past and preserved some of the rich cultural products of slavery. According to cultural critic Stuart Hall, black popular culture:
"In its expressivity, its musicality, its orality, in its rich, deep, and varied attention to speech, in its inflections toward the vernacular and the local, in its rich production of counternarratives, and above all, in its metaphorical use of the musical vocabulary.., has enabled the surfacing, inside the mixed and contradictory modes even of some mainstream popular culture, of elements of a discourse that is different--other forms of life, other traditions of representation."
I hope, therefore, that the analyses I present here will persuade readers that it is possible to interpret the work of these three prominent performing artists of the African-American past as helping to forge other legacies-blues legacies, black working-class legacies--of feminism. Finally, I hope this study will inspire readers to listen to the recordings of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday both for pleasure and for purposes of research, and that it will occasion further interdisciplinary studies of the artistic and social contributions of blues and jazz women.