America Is The Blues

“The blues is the roots, everything else is the fruits,” the legendary blues bassist and songwriter Willie Dixon once remarked.  Among critics and scholars of American music, this is more or less considered true.  Therefore, although they are separated by more than half a century, the 1970s singer-songwriters such as Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon can be considered the artistic descendants of classic blues singers Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith.  All of these performers made provocative music that asserted female sexuality and autonomy.   In addition to being seen as part of a musical evolution, Rainey, Smith, Mitchell and Simon can also be viewed in a narrative of progressive feminism.  In the jump from the classic female blues singers of the 1920 and 30s, to the female singer-songwriters of the 1970s, we see the gradual mainstreaming of female sexual independence.  Furthermore, this process affirms African-American culture as the critical place in American culture where new trends and movements are generated.

Bessie Smith. Photo by Carl Van Vechten, public domain

American culture is comfortable with violence but uncomfortable with sex.  The music of “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith is provocative because it explicitly addresses sex, and is additionally transgressive because of the musician’s gender.  If sex is bad, discussions of female sexuality are doubly forbidden in American culture.  Rainey and Smith were able to make their music and attain popularity due to their unique status as African-Americans.  As cultural outsiders, they were not bound by the same rules and expectations as whites.  Their race allowed them far more artistic freedom than white performers of the day could achieve.[1]

Although Carly Simon and Joni Mitchell were liberal hippies and therefore somewhat countercultural, they were much closer to the cultural mainstream than Smith and Rainey ever were or could be, by virtue of their skin color.  Although they were performing fifty years after Smith and Rainey, Simon and Mitchell still provoked a substantial reaction amongst listeners and the music press.  Their frank depictions of female sexuality and desire were treated as new, despite the fact that Rainey and Smith had addressed these very topics already.[2] The fact that Mitchell and Simon’s music caused such a stir illustrates the slow pace of change regarding attitudes about female sexuality.  Although Simon and Mitchell did not specifically mention the influence of “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith, the fact that Joni Mitchell’s most popular album is titled “Blue” confirms the centrality of the blues in American music.

In this narrative, African-American culture and the unique status of African-Americans in the United States is once again key for the formation and evolution of American culture.  Because of their race, African-American performers were able to push artistic boundaries and address issues forbidden to mainstream White culture.  Slowly, the blues made its way into mainstream American culture, and by the 1970s, White performers like Carly Simon and Joni Mitchell were addressing similar issues of female sexuality as Rainey and Smith had fifty years before.  This further reaffirms that African-American culture is at the heart, rather than the periphery, of American culture.

[1] Angela Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (New York: Vintage, 1999) 3-5, 18, 131-132.

[2] Judy Kutulas, “’That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be’: Baby Boomers, 1970s Singer-Songwriters, and Romantic Relationships,” Journal of American History 97, No. 3 (December 2010) 691, 694.

10 thoughts on “America Is The Blues

  1. I like what you say about the way African American performers were more able to push artistic boundaries and address issues “forbidden” to mainstream American culture, and it reminds me of something in the Kutulas article about how it was more difficult for white female performers to address these issues. Simply because of their “privilege” of being white and relatively mainstream, many white listeners embraced the messages of freedom but were simultaneously unable to live those messages out in real life. That said, it makes me wonder about music released today–are there ideological messages that many people are unable to fulfill because of their social positions? The first thing that comes to mind is rap music and how negative its message is…

    1. I think that rap music is similar to blues in that it does talk about issues and situations that are real to the artists and their situations (most of the time). Their negative sounding lyrics often reveal a greater feeling of anger, frustration. At the same time it highlight a need for social change in certain communities while at the same time a celebration of cultural characteristics. It has also infiltrated mainstream culture and has been adopted by other groups and people around the world. Some of it carries a stigma and a forbidden aspect to it, but like the blues singers it does deserve closer examination.

  2. I can truly appreciate this endorsement of the blues and early female blues artists. Both the blues and its female artists are often underrepresented in discussions of great musical accomplishments. In many cases, later artists with greater social and commercial capabilities have come to overshadow these early musical trailblazers. When reading about Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey and then Carol King and Carly Simon, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to other blues musicians and the later artists that benefited from their legacy. One example that came to mind was the immense influence of Robert Johnson on the musical careers of ultra-famous musicians like Eric Clapton, Robert Plant, and the Rolling Stones.

    1. So true. The blues infiltrated men’s music probably as much as women’s. It’s kind of funny, though, that none of us has accused these white artists of “ripping off” the black women who came before them. We love to do that today (the “controversy” caused by Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” and its similarities to Madonna’s “Express Yourself” being a recent example.) I like to think that musical styles develop organically over time. Of course musicians are affected by those who came before them. But I guess when songs like that come out that so boldly incorporate another musician’s trademark sound, it’s suddenly not okay? I’m not sure what the answer is there.

      1. I really think there is so much truth to Jacob’s last line:

        This further reaffirms that African-American culture is at the heart, rather than the periphery, of American culture.

        Music, fashion, and even dance crazes many times come to white culture from African American culture. There is something about the way that African American culture becomes whitewashed and loved by the masses. Once it proliferates white culture, the originators of that piece of culture have moved on to the next thing. The copying of culture really only comes into play when someone is copying other mainstream images. We hardly hear about the numerous times that underground culture is copied, but we always hear about the times that older popular songs are sampled.

  3. It’s hard to be a trailblazer. As Davis points out, many blues artists like Bessie Smith did try to cross over into more popular music with mixed success. Their most revolutionary work came as blues songs, though. Through this legacy, music has evolved from those blues roots that you mention. But is it better to be known in your own time or remembered by history?

    1. I would tend to agree that originality can be a hotly contested subject amongst artists, but on the same note wouldn’t the artist want to be known by its contemporary audience? Smith, Rainey, and Holiday were all singing to a specific audience, pleading their causes and woes. I don’t think that any of them could have foreseen how influential their works would be, nor how accessible they would eventually become. I think your question would be received differently for these earlier songwriters, but to us, we appreciate it for its roots in a style of music and the feminist movement.

      Going along with this question, during parts of the reading, I kept thinking of how we are able to attribute stylistic and thematic material to blues songs. For other types of music, such as big band and rock and roll, credit is not always given where it is due.

  4. In reading “Blues Legacies and Black Feminism,” I was really struck by the dichotomy between the eventual acceptance of African American singers as entertainers and their ostracization in Jim Crow society. When we read about Billie’s experiences traveling in the South (being cheered by audiences one moment, then not permitted to eat with her band the next), it was as if she existed on two planes: one as a performer and the other as an entertainer. For racist America, what made it acceptable to embrace some African American music while not accepting the performers as people with equal rights?

    1. whoops, I mean “one as a person, and the other as a entertainer.” It doesn’t seem like we can edit comments.

      1. Conditions haven’t changed that much, either. As Jacqueline Jones talked about in her article, white Americans routinely celebrate and revere black athletes and musicians. They see their million dollar paychecks and lull themselves into forgetting about the poverty cycle that has trapped many black Americans.

        I don’t know what made/makes it acceptable to embrace African American performers and athletes, while denying equal rights and opportunities to millions of other African Americans. Is it too simplistic to say that many people ignore things that they don’t want to see? That people support a unequal system because they benefit from it and don’t have any motivation to fight for equal rights for all?

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