They Will Survive: Lasting Legacies of the Classic Blues Women

After reading Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, I wanted to know what happened next, in the decades after “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday dominated the blues genre. Did the style and themes of their music manifest themselves years later, and if so, how? Despite being a generation or two apart, there are clear parallels between the songs of Rainey, Smith, and Holiday in the 1920s and 1930s and female African-American artists during the turbulent decades of the 1960s and 1970s.

Aretha Franklin
Gloria Gaynor

While arguably marketed for a more mainstream audience, the themes and strong, independent narrators in Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” (1968) and Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” (1978) share much in common with their predecessors of the classic female blues era. “I Will Survive” features a narrator flatly rejecting the man that once left her (“Go on now, go, walk out the door, just turn around now/’Cause you’re not welcome anymore”) while Franklin’s anthem sees a woman demand “a little respect” from her own partner.[1] Almost half a century later, these examples bring to mind songs like “Sam Jones Blues” and others that, according to Davis, “provided emphatic examples of black female independence.”[2]

Esther Phillips

As demonstrated in “Strange Fruit,” however, the blues were also used as a form of social protest and awareness, and later 20th century singers like Esther Phillips parallel this technique in their own work. Phillips’ release of “Home Is Where the Hatred Is” (1972) discusses “the state of drug addiction as broadly experienced by black women.”[3] Lyrics like “Home is where the needle marks/Try to heal my broken heart” echo the forlorn and haunting imagery of “Strange Fruit.”[4] Both songs illustrate the role of female African American singers in communicating issues of importance to the black community through their music.

Linda Jones

Still other singers adopted the form and style of classic female blues artists, and Linda Jones’ “For Your Precious Love” (1972) echoes these traditions.  Midway through the song, Jones addresses the women in her audience: “…you know something, ladies? If you got a man…he wants you to get down on your knees every once in a while and kind of crawl to him.”[5] This advice-giving break calls to mind classic era songs like “Lookin’ for My Man Blues,” “Trust No Man,” and “Keep it to Yourself,” which “shar[e] experiences for the purpose of instructing women how to conduct their lives.”[6]

The themes and forms found in the songs of “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holliday were adopted and adapted by black female singers of the 1960s and 1970s. Both used strong narrators, a distinct social awareness, and advice-giving asides so that listeners might better understand or identify with the unique experiences and livelihoods of working class African-Americans, particularly women.

[1] Gloria Gaynor, “I Will Survive,” 1978. < http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tth-8wA3PdY> Aretha Franklin, “Respect,” 1968. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z0XAI-PFQcA>

[2] Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), 20.

[3] Mark Anthony Neal, What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture (New York: Routledge, 1999), 76.

[4] Esther Phillips, “Home Is Where the Hatred Is,” 1972. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RvdnMzQGbEQ>

[5] Linda Jones, “For Your Precious Love,” 1972. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZY7fZ95XfMY>

[6] Davis, 53-54.

Photo credits:

Liz Thomas, “Time for a little r-e-s-p-e-c-t: Aretha Franklin is named greatest singer of all time.” Daily Mail website. <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-1092391/Time-little-r-e-s-p-e-c-t-Aretha-Franklin-named-greatest-singer-time.html>

Gloria Gaynor,” BBC website. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/d5c51c36-ac67-4727-91ed-ee9f0df81a2d>

Little Esther Phillips,” Flickr. <http://www.flickr.com/photos/22067139@N05/2474665637/>

Linda Jones,” Amazon.com website. <http://www.amazon.com/Linda-Jones/e/B000AQ1C6K>

2 thoughts on “They Will Survive: Lasting Legacies of the Classic Blues Women

  1. Claire, I’m glad you discussed the parallels between the music of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday and the similar music and lyrics written at least forty years later. The first thing that came to mind when I began reading “Blues Legacies and Black Feminism” was Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.”

    I even wondered if we could make parallels to female artists today, who seem to have drawn from the blues’ mix of strong narrators, powerful imagery, social awareness, and straight-talk attitude. Two more recent songs come to mind, one being Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It),” with lyrics such as: “Cause you had your turn/And now you’re gonna learn/What it really feels like to miss me.” [1]
    “Gunpowder & Lead,” sung by Miranda Lambert, reminded me of Bessie Smith’s “Them’s Graveyard Words,” in which Smith sang, “I done polished up my pistol, my razor’s sharpened too/He’ll think the world done fell in on him when my dirty work is through.” [2] Lambert’s song also describes physical abuse, a subject on which many blues songs were written. Lambert sings, “His fist is big, but my gun’s bigger/He’ll find out when I pull the trigger.” [3]

    [1] Beyonce, “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It),” 2008.

    [2] Angela Y. Davis, “Blues Legacies and Black Feminism,” (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), 35.

    [3] Miranda Lambert, “Gunpowder & Lead,” 2007.

    1. I like seeing this progression, but I wonder if Beyonce and Miranda Lambert are too tame by today’s standards to truly compare to Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.

      What about someone like Lil’ Kim? If some of the blues songs that Davis uses were considered almost pornographic, Lil’ Kim would seem to be a good modern incarnation as a subject to similar criticisms. Her lyrics are unapologetically blunt, aggressive, and sexual. She has also made her mark in a male-dominated musical genre that has been targeted as misogynistic and violent.

      Also–much like many of the subjects of the female blues singers’ songs–Lil’ Kim has actually been to jail for her rowdy, wild lifestyle.

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