“Ain’t nobody caught me”: Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Expressions of Female Sexuality in Blues

From the sexually-charged lyrics of Nicki Minaj and Lil’ Kim to the lyrical exploration of love and sexual independence by Beyonce, black female artists of today use their music as a vehicle to express their sexuality. With the male-dominated music industry and the consumerist nature of women’s sexuality in contemporary culture, the amount of agency and autonomy current black female vocalists and rappers have over their lyrics and image is contested. However, the expression of black women’s sexuality as a musical tradition can be traced back to the blue’s music of the early twentieth century. Black female blue’s artists expressed their sexuality through their music, which distinguished themselves apart from the Euro-American, patriarchal notions and ideals of female sexuality. Music was used as an avenue to express sexual independence and queer identities, and Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, by singing about sexuality and desire, protested against the social expectations of women and domesticity.

Sexual independence is a key theme to blue’s music performed by women. This expression of sexual independence was a revolutionary ideal born out of emancipation. Angela Davis, contemporary black feminist scholar and activist, argues that emancipation allowed free black men and women to explore their sexualities and romantic relationships independent of explicit white control. Musical expressions during slavery were about the collective experiences, hardships, and desires of enslaved people; emancipation created a black musical tradition which focused, rather, on the individual’s needs and desires. [1] Davis contends that Bessie Smith’s songs, laden with innuendos and sexual metaphors, tell stories of empowerment, freedom, and independence, and these female characters in her songs “are clearly in control of their sexuality in ways that exploit neither their partners nor themselves.” [2] Female blues musicians freely expressed themes of infidelity in their works and performances. Infidelity is rarely ever expressed in Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith’s songs as a burden or taboo. Instead, female blues artists celebrate their ability to be as brazen, crass, and sensual as men. [3] In “Barrel House Blues,” Ma Rainey portrays the parallels between men’s and women’s similar desires for alcohol, merriment, and sex: “Papa likes his bourbon, mama likes her gin / Papa likes his outside women, mama likes her outside men.” [4] Infidelity can be seen as the ultimate sign of sexual independence; it’s a woman’s way of asserting her sexual freedom from her spouse or partner. Men were consistently depicted as wandering, philandering partners in songs, so by depicting women as equally sexually adventurous and non-committal to traditional monogamous relationships, female blues artists were asserting their independence and freedom from dominant, romantic-love ideals and expectations.

Mother Of The Blues
circa 1923: Portrait of American blues singer Ma Rainey (1886-1939)

Blues artists challenged the heterosexual notions of female sexuality in a time when lesbianism and female love existed as a secretive, oppressed subculture in society. Black lesbians of the Harlem Renaissance “adopted a heterosexual public persona” while keeping their love interests and affairs with women “a secret.” [5] Speakeasies, jazz clubs, and dive bars became venues where female blues artists could not only express female love and attraction through song but also through relationships, interactions, and attire. [6] The sexually expressive nature of blues music allowed black women to discuss queer identities and unconventional sexual desires. “Prove It on Me Blues” by Ma Rainey is about a woman who flaunts and indulges in her attraction for women and cross dressing. The lyrics also express, however, the secretive nature of queer relationships in society when the female character in the song exclaims, “’Cause they say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me.” [7] The woman featured in the song boldly flaunts her attraction to women. This song alludes to the lesbian subculture that existed in the Jazz Age by portraying a woman who is comfortable conveying her sexuality in public but still has to consider the fact that she might be caught doing so. Although there might well have been implications to her being caught cross dressing and approaching women, the female character displays confidence and enjoyment in challenging sexual norms. Lesbianism and queer desires portrayed in the songs of female blues artists illustrates their defiance to conform to the dominant, heterosexual culture.

bentley
Cabaret singer and pianist Gladys Bentley, who performed in tuxedo.

Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and other female blues artists resisted conventional, patriarchal notions of female sexuality through their music. Lyrics telling tales of infidelity, promiscuity, desire, sexual freedom, and lesbianism cemented female sexuality as a tradition within African American musical forms and emboldened future black female artists to interpret their sexuality as a source of empowerment, confidence, resistance, and protest.

 

[1] Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (New York: Random House Inc., 1998), 4-5.

[2] Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, 14.

[3] Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, 20-21.

[4] Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, 24.

[5] Eric Garber, “A Spectacle in Color: The Lesbian and Gay Subculture of Jazz Age Harlem,” in Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, ed. Martin B. Duberman et al (New York: New American Library, 1989), 320.

[6] Lisa Hix, “Singing the Lesbian Blues in 1920s Harlem,” Collectors Weekly, July 9, 2013, http://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/singing-the-lesbian-blues-in-1920s-harlem/

[7] Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, 39.

15 thoughts on ““Ain’t nobody caught me”: Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Expressions of Female Sexuality in Blues

  1. I like that you point out how contemporary musicians channel their sexuality through their music, just as many other artists have done throughout time. Sometimes I am surprised at the very suggestive and vulgar lyrics, but I’ve realized that its not only current music that follows these trends. I find it very eye opening that Ma Rainey openly sang about her unconventional sexual desires, and almost a hundred years later, as a society we are still struggling with LGBTQ issues.

    1. Yeah, you have a good point. There’s always a lot of fuss about sexual themes in pop culture these days, people too often forget that sexuality, including LGBT sexuality, have been a part of art for a long time now.

    2. I also think that music dealing with sexuality allows black female artists to reclaim their sexuality from the public. By writing and performing their own songs, they are making statements about how they perceive their sexuality, rather than accept the views expressed in music about them.

  2. Karissa, I like your discussion of blues as a space for sexual commentary and exploration. Notably, that this is an important factor in creating agency in African-American feminist movements. Like you (and Emily) mention, I think this is also key to contemporary artists and the representations we see today in popular music and media.

  3. The current music connection at the beginning was a brilliant way to introduce this blog and you made some really amazing points. Women have fought and continue to fight for agency in a variety of areas of life, including sexual independence, and music provides the opportunity for this discussion. I was fascinated by the story of the women’s blues addressing all these issues, because I had never been introduced to this idea before. I hadn’t been introduced to blues very much in general before this and so learning about all of the issues they addressed has been fascinating. It’s a shame that these issues seem to ave been forgotten.

    1. I would be fascinated to know to what extent the musicians (whether of the past or today) intentionally use their songs as a tool for social commentary, and how much control they have. I’m sure there will always be a balance between artistic self-expression, intentionally asserting feminist ideas, and creating a product that society will accept and pay for.

      1. I had the same thought as Kate and wonder what the formula for the lyrics behind the music were/are. In contemporary music, it seems as though the pressure to have an accepted product is so desirable, other aspects of the power of music may be forgotten (unless they already have a platform as big as Beyonce or Nicki Minaj).

  4. Perhaps foolishly, I never though about song as a form of activism before this weeks readings. Ma Rainy and Bessie Smith really spoke to a generation about subjects that have only just recently became main stream. Sadly, the music industry is still overwhelming patriarchal (the present legal battle between Kesha and producer Lukasz Sebastian come to mind). It just goes to show the obstacles and hardship women, let alone African American women, have to endure in the working world.

  5. I probably shouldn’t be, but I am surprised to find out that non-heterosexual desires were included so openly in these lyrics. I am really very curious about very brave women who sang about things that were very dangerous, or at the very least, scandalous to mention, as well as the culture of black queer women, who faced so many obstacles in getting to be who they were. It is refreshing to look at their musical expressions as true liberation and sexual equality with men, however I want to know how these songs were perceived by contemporary audiences. Now, I look at these lyrics and feel the empowerment that these women must have been discovering and expressing, but what did an average person think back then? How did this affect the singers’ careers?

    (P.S. Gladys Bentley is absolutely KILLING IT in that tux!)

  6. Through these past few blog posts we have discussed how black feminists in the 1920s expressed themselves through song, and that tradition continues up to contemporary times. What your article wonderfully does is connect not only the struggle for equal rights within the law, and equal rights as a woman, but equal rights no matter what the sexual preference might be. Performing in the jazz clubs was such an almost subversive way to simply be exactly who these women were and I applaud their courage to express themselves, but am heartbroken by the way they had to sneak around simply to be exactly who they were.

  7. You illustrated how blues women were living in a cultural crossroads during their time. On one hand, they were arguing against the traditional idea of women as docile and domestic by singing about female sexuality. On the other hand, their not-so-subtly hidden queer identities brought a secret world of women into the public sphere. These actions was made all the more revolutionary by the color of their skin. In this way I think that blues women are really an inspiration, encouraging women to behave boldly, and without apology.

    1. I absolutely agree with your assessment, Karissa. Music provides a powerful platform to break out of the shadows, if only for a moment, and these women broke down these stereotypes every time they sang. What frustrates me the most, is the fact that after the songs ended, these women were essentially back in the shadows again. Using contemporary musicians was a great idea to showcase the fact that these struggles are still very real and that women musicians are still fighting for what they believe in.

  8. The connection between the artistic tradition of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith and the messages they conveyed and the current music of Beyonce and Nicki Minaj was striking, as I feel that, more than any other facet, is the major connecting strand these musical traditions have. I think I have often disconnected these different areas of music given their different styles and the contexts that surround them (as has been pointed out, the present music industry is dominated by the consumer commercialism of the market). But the message involved, as the larger meaning of the artistic and creative process, proves more enduring, and finds a way of emerging in different ways. It is up to the listener to unearth this meaning, understand the context it is in, and most of all appreciate music that makes a point of speaking to something beyond itself. I think an interesting exhibit would be to explore these different music styles and the different ways the music is communicated and perhaps shaped; hopefully, it would foster an appreciation and critical analysis of music in general to understand where the significant message lies.

  9. I agree with your writings Karissa. I find that music has a way of showing someone’s true feelings in a way the majority people understand yet not agree. The idea of freedom of sexuality has a long history in America and it is still an issue today. I feel artists are using their music today to push the boundaries of this struggle but there is still people pushing against it. There are people that feel that exploring one’s sexuality is wrong morally and that is not the case. By suppressing it, it is only going to have adverse effects. By opening this discussion up, especially with teens, society can start to finally accepting the freedom of sexuality.

  10. I feel like the way sexuality is expressed through music also fits within the conventions of the time. Sexuality in earlier blues music was much more subdued it seems, specifically when referring to sexual orientation, whereas now gender and sexuality are much more widely discussed topics and same sex attraction is more widely accepted by the public making the music of this current time much more explicit in wrangling with these topics (thinking of Katy Perry’s I Kissed a Girl). I wonder as we continue to accept more and more differences between individuals and sexuality how music will continue to change and reflect the time.

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