“No one is as deaf as the man who will not listen.”- Jewish Proverb

If you ask a performer which is easier, acting out a scene or acting out a song, hands down the answer will be the song. When trying to convey emotion into a scene devoid of music, all you have to rely on is your own ability to interpret the situation. A song gives you emotional context. The music sets the tone and mood to what would otherwise simply be poetry. Music, and the musician performing the piece, has the ability to convey complex themes such as irony and sarcasm which are difficult to convey through text alone. Angela Davis in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism argues this point in regards to the work of Bessie Smith. Some of her lyrics may be interpreted as “accepting emotional and physical abuse… but close attention to her musical presentation of these songs persuades the listener that they contain implicit critiques of male abuse.” [1] The lyrics of Smith’s “Yes, Indeed He Do” may appear to be submissive however the delivery and music itself convey a message of defiance and sarcasm, indistinguishable as lyrics alone.

Davis argues that that “blues as a genre never acknowledges the discursive and ideological boundaries separating the private sphere from the public.”[2] This disregard for mainstream cultural acceptance allowed Blues Women of the 1920’s and 1930’s to subvert the discursive norm by bringing into the public sphere, difficult and often socially forbidden subjects, such as; abuse, rape, love and sexuality (both homo and heterosexual) the patriarchal norms of domestic and public spheres and freedom. By asserting themselves through their music, Blues Women were able to air issues that working class men and women were confronting everyday but for which they had no outlet. By discussing these themes it created a form of agency for these black women. The blues “advises women to take control of their sexuality and implicitly challenges the churches condemnation of sexuality.” [3]By taking control they were agentive in a way that was impossible during slavery.

Though Davis argues that Blues Women were singing on themes outside the mainstream culture, Ma Rainey ventures into the world of popular entertainment with her 1928 song “Black Bottom”.[4] Black Bottom was originally a dance which originated in the early 1900’s making its way to New York by 1924 where it was a sensation.[5] My first thoughts were to question why Ma Rainey would deviated from her rejection of social norms? But much like Bessie Smith in “Yes, Indeed He Do” there are elements I was missing, even after having listened to the song and watched the dance. Ma Rainey was in fact using “Black Bottom” as a way to re-appropriate the song and dance for black culture. The dance has its roots in the black community and was appropriated by white society as the ‘next big thing after the Charleston’. [6] By creating a blues song about the dance she re-appropriates her own culture. The Blues allowed black women to be assertive in a way never before available. If historians can truly listen and hear the lyrics, the music and understand the cultural context correctly, then the Blues become a wonderfully rich cultural and historic primary resource.

[1] Davis, Angela Y. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (New York: Random House Inc., 1998), 26.
[2] Ibid 25
[3] Ibid 131
[4] Youtube Black Bottom, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-fizLgmUHmw
[5] Wikipedia, Black Bottom (dance), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Bottom_%28dance%29
[6] Youtube Black Bottom Dance, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RGPnPHrrZeA&feature=related

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