An Introduction to the Blues

An Introduction to the Blues

By Meghan Evans

I remember the night it happened. My cell phone rang. My mother was on the other end, “It’s time.” At the hospice home, I sat there holding my mother and stared in awe at my grandfather opposite me. He sat next to his beloved wife, holding her hand, and whispering sweetly, “We’re all here …we’re all here.”

I remember the look in my grandfather’s eyes as life slipped out of my grandmother. It was a knowing look that now at last she would be at peace.  At the same time, he questioned how he would handle a future without her. How could he live, smile, laugh ever again without her in this world?

His grief took life in the form of Billie Holiday. Every moment of every day was filled with grief-stricken music about love lost, love regained, and love lost again. Through music he mourned and was reminded that life was worth living.

Bessie Smith - Any Woman's Blues
Bessie Smith – Any Woman’s Blues

It is no wonder that there is a genre of music called “the Blues.” With so much suffering in the world, how can there not be?  While my grandfather found life again through jazz and Billie Holiday, jazz, swing (a type of jazz), rock and even funk have their roots in the blues whose origins are African-American. Early blues women, such as Bessie Smith and Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, inspired many forms of music.

Angela Davis reminds us of the many reasons the blues became so popular in the early 20th century in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism. One such reason is the expressive freedoms for women previously unthinkable. “[Blues women] preached about sexual love, and in so doing they articulated a collective experience of freedom, giving voice to the most powerful evidence there was for many black people that slavery no longer existed.” [1]

We take for granted the freedoms we have today, especially pertaining to sex. We forget that enslaved communities were unable to love freely. Davis likens this oppression to animal husbandry, where owners would match healthy male and female specimens to produce better stock. [2] Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith were “spokeswomen” for sexual freedom, but also for another kind of freedom for women. [3]

Female blues singers may have been singing about sexual freedom, but they were also advocating for a different kind of freedom – freedom from the slavery often found in marriage. While marriage may have provided some women financial security, songs sung by Smith and Rainey reminded audiences that domesticity could be far from blissful. Smith’s “Weeping Willow Blues” told the story of a woman who followed her domestic responsibilities and still was abandoned by her husband for reasons unknown.

Folks, I love my man, I kiss him mornin’, noon, and night

I wash his clothes and keep him clean and try to treat him right

Now he’s gone and left me after all I’ve tried to do. [4]

Through this song, Smith implied that no marriage is safe from tragedy or slavery. In fact, many of the songs Rainey and Smith recorded emphasize the enslavement of women to husbands, such as Smith’s “Yes, Indeed He Do”.

I don’t have to do no work except to wash his clothes

And darn his socks and press his pants and scrub the kitchen floor. [5]

As a married woman, Rainey too warned women about domestic slavery through marriage. In “Misery Blues” she sought to pass advice to those considering marriage.

He told me that he loved me, loved me so

If I would marry him, I needn’t to work no mo’

Now I’m grievin’, almost dyin’

Just because I didn’t know that he was lyin’. [6]

While the marriage of my grandparents seems like a dream from the 1950s, marriage in the post-emancipation period was difficult. Blues singers such as Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith inspired a generation of women through their works. They promoted individuality and feminism while reminding women that they were beautiful and allowed to have sexual desires. This music would transcend to inspire artists of the 1960s such as Nina Simone and Janis Joplin.

“Even as they may have shed tears,” Davis writes, “they found the courage to lift their heads and fight back, asserting their right to be respected not as appendages or victims of men but as truly independent human beings with vividly articulated sexual desires.” [7]

 

Citations

[1] Angela Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (New York: Vintage Books, 1998) 9.

[2] Ibid., 10.

[3] Ibid., 9.

[4] Ibid., 18.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 16.

[7] Ibid., 20.

 

Bibliography

Davis, Angela. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism. New York: Vintage Books, 1998.

 

Images courtesy of Bessie Smith’s album Woman’s Blues.

 

7 thoughts on “An Introduction to the Blues

  1. I really have to respect Davis for all the time and effort that she made to transcribe her sources. Knowing how challenging it is to do this with my own interview, I know that this takes a lot. And without these types of sources her work would have been impossible. Using untranscribed song lyrics allowed her to explore how the Blues music was a form of self expression and liberation for many African American women.

  2. I really enjoyed this week’s readings, because I always thought I understood blues lyrics, but after reading this week’s work I realized that I never really thought in great depth about the exact meanings. I always knew the general topics, but I never thought about them in their time of production. I have gained a new respect for blues music by thinking about them in their time of production, instead of thinking about them in a post-modern situation.

    1. Sam, I agree completely. I’d never thought before about what the differences in topic between male and female jazz singers had to really say about the musicians themselves. It’s amazing to realize that these songs aren’t just about individual experiences of lost love or failed romance, but that they instead speak to the larger changes in African American culture of early 20th century. I’d noticed before that female musicians tended to sing more about romance, but the readings this week really made me think about why.

    2. I thought it was fascinating what Davis said about the front and center sexuality of blues women being related to freedom from slavery and forced breeding by slave owners. I knew about the sexual explicitness of blues, but I had never made that connection.

  3. I enjoyed the section about reconciling the God and Devil. my favorite quote is By Ida Goodson: ” the devil got his work and God got his work.” When thinking about contemporary music, “godliness” or lack thereof is usually the least of concerns. The transformation of consciousness and freedom found in the music mimics the spirituals they were derived from for a different generation. Music is a religious experience for many people, including myself, and the secularity of the Blues using “the communal channels of relief that had been largely the province of religion in the past” really speak to the power of music, and in an indirect way, religion.

  4. I, too, was especially fascinated by the connection Davis made between sexual freedom and freedom from slavery. She makes some good points about the discontinuity between slave-era music and the blues (religious vs. secular, community vs. individual) but by far her best argument for the continuity between the two was that theme of freedom. I’m very interested to talk about that more in class!

  5. Not being a person who often relates to music, this look into the meaning behind these female blues musicians was a bit of an eye opener. I didn’t realize how much defiance and independence was written into their lyrics.

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