The Female Blues: Making Private Public

Whenever anyone mentions Aretha Franklin as a female music mogul, one word comes to mind: Respect. Unfortunately, respect for women (or oneself) isn’t necessarily a pre-requisite in the music industry. In the 1920s and 1930s, blues music began gaining popularity, and was known for his provocative and pervasive sexual imagery. Not only was this imagery new to the American public, but women were also singing the music. In their refusal to romanticize relationships, and thus expose stereotypes and explore the contradictions of relationships, these female blues singers helped provide a new “place” for women.[1] Now, by making their personal relationship experiences public, women like Bessie Smith and Gertrude “Ma” Rainey were telling other black, working class women, that they weren’t alone and other women shared the same experiences they did. Consider the lyrics of “Don’t Fish In My Sea”, sung by both women.

Here, Bessie Smith complains that her man came home drunk in the morning after staying out all night, and although he used to stay out late, now he often doesn’t come home at all. She goes on to sing:

If you don’t like my ocean, don’t fish in my sea
Don’t like my ocean, don’t fish in my sea
Stay out of my valley and let my mountain be [2]

Instead of propagating the widely accepted ideas of black women as “mammy” or overly-sexualized figures, women like “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith implied that hardship was normal, and by singing that message, they empowered women to assert individuality and power in their own lives and relationships.

With their refusal to be stifled, the female blues singers of the early twentieth century opened the door to female expression through popular music. Not only could women speak to other women through song, but politics could be conveyed effectively as well. As Judy Kutulas points out in her article “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be,” popular music has the unique power of immediacy.[3] Music is ever-present, constantly produced, and has become a background noise for life. As always, however, there are conflicting messages.  In many songs and music videos, women continue to be depicted as “temptress” figures, and are not taken seriously. Consider many of the current hip-hop and rap music videos—they include rich men flashing their “bling” while surrounded by dozens of beautiful, scantily clad women.

Thankfully, some women have decided to continue in the tradition of Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith. Take Alicia Keys for example.

In her song “Fallin’,” she sings about falling in and out of love, while feeling good, used, and confused all at the same time. What’s more, she uses the song’s music video to portray powerful imagery while remaining decidedly un-sexualized and almost masculine at certain points. As Keys walks through her day, she shows imprisoned black women working in a field wearing their bright orange prison jumpsuits. Next, Keys visits her boyfriend, the subject of the song, in prison. The message of the video seems to be that everyone is imprisoned by something—love, men, society, or race, among other things.

With her use of a current urban landscape and legitimate issues, I believe Alicia Keys represents a continuation of the movement started by those female blues singers almost a century ago. Making private issues public can empower people, and in our current technological climate, artists now have the power to make their messages heard instantly.


[1] Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (Vintage Books: New York, 1998): 41.

[2] Davis, 214

[3] Judy Kutulas, “’That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be’: Baby Boomers, 1970s Singer-Songwriters, and Romantic Relationships,” The Journal of American History 97, No. 3 (December 2010): 684.

9 thoughts on “The Female Blues: Making Private Public

  1. I want to touch on technology’s impact on making the private public. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and their ilk have broke down barriers of public and private in the digital landscape. Things that used to be private, like the beginnings or ends of relationships are now broadcast on Facebook for the world to see. Has the ubiquity of digital technologies undermined or diluted the boldness and artistry of making the private public?

    Making the private public in digital music has come to its inevitable zenith in Rebecca Black’s “Friday.” Ms. Black bares her soul, confessing she’s “gotta have (her) bowl, gotta have (her) cereal” and that she wants to “get down on Friday.” Her lyrics implicitly beg the listener to empathize with her when she can’t decide whether to “kick it in the front seat” or “sit in the back seat” with her brace-wearing friends who are obviously too young to be driving a car.

    1. I think there’s a difference between the public side that people voluntarily share on social networking sites like facebook and twittter and the feminist slogan, “the personal is political.” While it is true that the digital age has led to an oversharing of personal detail (the cereal you ate for breakfast), I think that represents a personal control of public knowledge. A break-up will become public knowledge sooner or later — facebook just allows us to make it sooner and spread the information more widely.

      Second-wave feminists, following in the footsteps of female blues musicians, brought much grittier subjects to light: domestic violence, sexual interest, female power. While you can share details of a rape on facebook, many women don’t. In the digital age the personal isn’t political; it’s just an overshare of mundane detail.

      1. You made a very valid point that people control the information they put out there, especially when it comes to grittier subjects. However, I am not putting dealing with a rape and divulging cereal choices on the same plane. I should’ve been clearer earlier in saying that over-sharing of personal details on Facebook might desensitize us to feeling, identifying, and empathizing with the real thing when it comes along. Alicia Keys’ Fallin’ is a beautiful, powerful song, but its meaning might be lessened when considered with angsty Facebook statuses about cheating boyfriends or confused girlfriends.

  2. I have always respected Alicia Keys for both her musical abilities and her poignant lyricism. As you stated a great deal of modern music, even from some female performers themselves, contradict the messages of empowerment and independence expressed in the music of Bessie Smith and “Ma” Rainey. Thinking about this subject, some recent music reviews that I have read came to mind. In particular, I remember one arguing that Ke$ha’s music is empowering to women. I had difficulty seeing the “liberating” elements to her music. Her choice to sing (kind of) about excessive drinking and sex doesn’t compare to the bold and real subject matter of an Alicia Keys.

    As a way of fleshing this out, I thought about the comparative listening environments of music. The music of Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and even Alicia Keys is meant to be enjoyed through listening and performance as opposed to the plethora of “party songs” hitting the charts these days. My personal belief is that much of the modern hits that are profane and less-than-respectful to women have their true lyrics hidden by overproduction and the nature of the environments (parties, bars, clubs) in which they are played. Taking this into mind I appreciate the true art in the vocals, lyrics, and emotion with a video such as Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.”

    1. Matt, your comment immediately made me think of Beyonce Knowles. I wonder where she fits into the musical tradition of female empowerment that you described. In songs like “Independent Woman,” “Single Ladies,” and “To the Left” she asserts her economic, social, and sexual power over men. Although the lyrics deliver a message of empowerment, I think that the “party song” aspect of them dilutes their message. Although “Single Ladies” can represent a rallying cry for women, the atmosphere where it is likely to be played (bars, clubs, and parties) hardly promotes a personal connection to the lyrics.

      Interestingly, Beyonce’s recent ballads, “Halo” and “If I Were a Boy” both revolve around a man. “Halo” celebrates her happiness over finding a worthy man, who I assume represents her husband Jay Z. The song is light, fluffy and angst-free. Does the fact that Beyonce is happily married affect her ability to convincingly connect to the Blues tradition? Although my knowledge of her music is limited to what I hear on the radio, I think that she comes closest with her song “If I Were a Boy.” In the song, she describes what she would do if she spent the day as a male, and her choices (“I’d go out with the guys and chase after girls”) represent implied critiques of modern men. In the music video, the song ends with her in tears because her man proves to be unworthy of her. “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith certainly would not have tolerated that man for as long as Beyonce did!

      Still, I wonder why Alicia Keys and not Beyonce come to mind when we look for a modern descendant of the blues tradition? How are the two different? How are they similar? Why does Alicia Keys have the street-cred that Beyonce seems to lack? Is it for the reasons I described above or are there others?

      1. As I was reading Angela Davis’s “Blues Legacies and Black Feminism” I found myself thinking about later waves of female songwriters such as Aretha Franklin, Pat Benatar, Alicia Keys, Beyonce, and even Lady Gaga, and how their themes of female strength compare to the blues singers we read about. Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey were pioneers who sang the blues to release their woes, with some songs serving the purpose of warning others not to follow in their footsteps. I feel that some of these later artists followed a similar path as these women who were rebelling against societal and patriarchal relationships, however their subject matter changed with the different waves of feminism and with the popularization of female artists.

        Concerning Beyonce, I think one reason why she has been categorized as a modern feminist artist to a lesser degree is partially due to her most recent thematic transitions. However, I also think that her reception has something to do with her early career as a member of Destiny’s Child and how the group was categorized in the same genre of teen pop singers such as Britney Spears. Alica Keys did not have to battle such comparisons. I still feel as though Beyonce has feminist elements to her songs, however, for several reasons she is not given credit for her influence.

        Female artists of the past few years seem to not quite fit into any category that we have discussed. They sing of independence from men and their desires, but at the same time some of them are still showcasing their bodies in a way that the media eats up (Even Lady GaGa, who defies feminine ideals to an extent). I feel as though the physical displays can take away from the messages embedded within the music.

      2. Sarah,

        You make some great points about Beyonce. I think there is more to what Beyonce represents. She certainly has the voice and the talent to sing the blues. I have seen many times when she has performed blues song and each time it was beautiful. I think that difference between Beyonce and Alicia Keys has to do with motivation behind their music. Beyonce came from a performance background and was driven by her family to become a performer. Alicia Keys struggled to become a performer and artist.

        Beyonce is an artist and she writes many of her songs, but she is the first to admit that she is performer. Her latest album is called “I am … Sasha Fierce.” Who is Sasha Fierce? She is the persona Beyonce adorns to perform. I have read many interviews with her where she admits that she is affected by stage fright. By becoming Sasha Fierce Beyonce is able to perform.

        However, I have read lately that Beyonce doesn’t consider herself Sasha Fierce anymore. She is more comfortable with herself, and now she is ready to just be Beyonce. Her next album will purportedly reflect this confidence. In the article I read the author believes that Beyonce’s marriage is what has helped her find her true self.

        Both Alicia Keys and Beyonce Knowles are married. They both sing about hardships and happiness. Isn’t it ok for a modern woman to be married and acknowledge happiness in marriage? I think the future of blues will be the songs about struggling with being a strong woman and being happy in a relationship with a man.

        Check these articles out:

        http://newsroom.mtv.com/2008/10/23/beyonce-explains-herself-and-sasha-fierce-in-listening-party-video/

        http://www.imnotobsessed.com/2010/02/26/beyonce-says-she-killed-alter-ego-sasha-fierce/

  3. Music always surprises me in its ability to deeply affect people. But depending on how the listener absorbs it, its power varies. In our assignments for this week, we got a pretty all-encompassing look at different ways people encounter music. To me, there seems to be a hierarchy of how one connects with music. At the bottom is reading written song lyrics like we did in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism. Affecting, yes, but lacking a certain urgency and interpretation. Then there are recorded audio performances, like your video Don’t Fish in My Sea (great imagery there, by the way). I’d put recorded music videos like Alicia Keys’ “Fallin’,” where we see the performer “singing” a pre-recorded song, probably on an pretty equal playing field with the recorded audio. One has the live vocals but lacks the emotions in the face, and the other has the imagery but lacks the emotion in the words. Video footage of live performances, like the one we watched of Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit,” is on the next tier. The only way to top that is to see a musician perform live. How amazing would it have been to have seen one of these blues performers in person?

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