This statement works well to sum up the lives of blues queens such as Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith. During the 1920s and 30s, when there were clear-cut gender roles for men and, particularly, women, female blues singers showed Society that they were going to do things their own way. As Smith’s song “Taint Nobody’s Bizness If I Do” begins:
“There ain’t nothin’ I can do or nothin’ I can say
That folks don’t criticize me
But I’m going to do just as I want to anyway
And don’t care if they all despise me.”
Women who were black or white, working or middle class, had their place in the world, a sphere of domesticity in which their husbands, children, and even fathers depended on them to keep house and tend to their every need. Generally, females were expected to marry, although the definition of this union differed across cultural groups, with some African Americans choosing to procreate and bond as couples without being wed legally.
The blues as sung by females in the 1920s and 30s told stories of women, whether fictional or based on reality, who did not conform to the rules that society pressed upon them. Songs about drinking, promiscuity, homosexuality, and even murder celebrate the independence and individuality that African American women found in the earlier decades of the 20th century after the end of slavery and the eventual, slow spread of rights to people other than rich white men. This is not to say that female blues singers were running the streets murdering adulterers and their mistresses, but a degrading shake of the finger from Society, stating “You can’t act that way!” did not phase them one bit.
While blues queens Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey were not timid about sharing the scandalous things they did or imagined doing, they also sang about tougher issues such as domestic violence. Interestingly, though, they almost seem to make light of the fact that their men beat them, cheat on them, and take all of their money. Is it a way to cover their pain, to help women deal with their own abusive lovers? Or is it part of their attitude that the things that should matter in the eyes of Society simply aren’t as big a deal to them as African Americans who had suffered generations of violence and abuse from white oppressors? Regardless, these women gave a voice to many other women who, although they may not have sung the blues were certainly feeling them.