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