January blues: How the women of the Jazz Age are finally getting their dues

·8-min read
Ladies sing the blues: Billie Holiday, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith (Rex/Getty)
Ladies sing the blues: Billie Holiday, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith (Rex/Getty)

In all of Netflix’s festive programming, a film that reimagined a Black female blues pioneer is the most talked-about of the season. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, an adaptation of August Wilson’s Eighties play, captures early blues icon Rainey as she and her band prepare to record in 1920s Chicago. It features Academy Award winner Viola Davis in an unforgettable performance as the grand dame herself, adorned with a mouthful of gold teeth and greasepaint makeup smeared across her face.

Davis embodies the bawdy nature, magnetic personality and vulnerability that earned Rainey the title of “Mother of the Blues”. She struts and grinds in glee, belting out raunchy tales of long nights spent drinking and getting up to no good. When her band member Levee, played by the late Chadwick Boseman, tries to steal the spotlight, she sings louder, unwilling to give shine to men who haven’t put in the work that she has.

Gertrude “Ma” Rainey was one of a bevy of entrepreneurial women who spent their life in the public glare, singing the blues. At the time, women dominated the scene. Artists like Mamie Smith, the first Black artist to record a blues song (“Crazy Blues” in 1920), Memphis Minnie – whose song “When The Levee Breaks” was famously covered by Led Zeppelin – and “Empress of the Blues” Bessie Smith were some of the early stars who toured America in vaudeville stage shows and downtown city bars to popularise this emerging style of music. Rainey made over 100 recordings and influenced generations of musicians, but beyond the prized collections of blues fanatics, her name is rarely spoken.

Finally, that’s all changing, and the legacy of blues women is being re-examined by a new generation eager to fill in the gaps in musical history. Late last year, the tumultuous life of blues singer Billie Holiday was illustrated in the documentary Billie, which comprised interviews from old tapes with members of her circle, and attempted to cast her as more than the victim she has been painted as previously. Considerable column inches were also given to the long-overlooked American singer Bettye LaVette, whose album Blackbirds largely covered songs by early Black women artists, including Holiday and Lil Green, or as she calls them, her “black birds”. Speaking to The New York Times, LaVette said: “These women are the first Black women singers I heard. Knowing what all these women went through, I can find myself in each of the songs because I’m a black bird too.”

Next year, the blues appreciations keep on coming. Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming biopic on Elvis Presley will feature Grammy-winning artist Yola as the godmother of rock’n’roll and blues innovator Sister Rosetta Tharpe, giving audiences the chance to show how Tharpe inspired a young Presley. And in the publishing world, Faber & Faber will in February release a new biography of one of the most popular blues singers of her time, Bessie Smith – to whom Rainey was a mentor – by Scotland’s national poet Jackie Kay. There have been occasional attempts to shine a light on this era previously – the 2015 HBO biopic on Smith starring Queen Latifah springs to mind – but this time there is mass illumination.

It’s about time these women got their dues. For decades, the true origin of the blues was obscured by the myth of the lone man, his guitar and his sorrow. The trend was popularised in the 1930s when song collectors and record companies saw an opportunity to market this more homely approach as a purer form of blues, as opposed to the theatrical songs women often sang. A similar approach took hold in the nascent rock’n’roll scene: Tharpe’s guitar-wielding gospel was rarely noted as the inspiration behind Elvis or Chuck Berry’s genius. Even Berry admitted that much of his career was “one long Rosetta Tharpe impersonation”.

The real life Ma Rainey performs with her bandRex
The real life Ma Rainey performs with her bandRex

Having seen themselves and the music they created taken over by outside forces, women such as Tharpe often spoke about the appropriation of their work. She told one paper in 1957: “All this new stuff they call rock and roll, why, I’ve been playing that for years now.” Later, blues revivals moved even further from the genre’s origins and often focused on white artists, reframing a musical style born of Black pain around a white narrative, with stars like Janis Joplin coming to the fore.

It’s exciting, then, to see the true history of the genre come to light, especially on screen. And within these new biopics, in the pages of newspaper articles, and on screen, women who were previously an afterthought are given the chance to be seen more honestly than ever before. In the Netflix adaptation, for example, Ma Rainey is often dismissive and brash to the men around her, but does so to keep everyone in line and remind them who makes the money. As director George C Wolfe explained in the accompanying documentary on the making of the film: “Ma’s blues is articulating defiance. [It] is not a blues of despair.”

Meanwhile, in Billie, the singer is viewed through the interviews that journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl conducted with hundreds of her friends, band members and peers in the 1970s. In doing so, she is revealed to be both the tragic masochist she’s known as and also a peerless wonder who lived fast and sought pleasure wherever she could find it.

The tragic image Holiday’s legacy carried was often the way that women in blues were portrayed previously: as fallen women for whom musical creativity is entwined with self-destruction. Though many women of this era lived difficult lives, their existence is not the one-note misery fest that blues history would have us believe. They were businesswomen, songwriters and entrepreneurs, who drank and fought, loved and partied. In a world where women are still told to take up less space, seeing women embody every facet of themselves, even the rough edges, is thrilling to behold. Speaking to The Guardian, Florence Dawkins, the woman who transformed Rainey’s Georgia house into a museum, put it aptly when she said of the singer: “She didn’t apologise for her lifestyle or what she was and that’s what appeals to me.”

Billie Holiday performs in 1947Rex
Billie Holiday performs in 1947Rex

Much of the blues renaissance can be placed on audiences’ desire for representation in the culture they consume and an insistence to be part of the history of the society they exist in. The music genre featured many liberated women who were openly queer, including Rainey, who boasts in the lyrics of “Prove It On Me” that she “went out last night with a crowd of my friends/They must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men”. Bessie Smith was also known to have affairs with women, often those in her touring troupe. Blues was the spark that lit the embers for rock and roll, rhythm’n’blues, punk and, let’s face it, much of western music in the past century. Knowing that the originators were Black queer women is a source of inspiration for many.

Within these stories there are also life lessons on exploitation in the music industry. In one scene in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Rainey stops her recording session because her white producer and agent did not provide a bottle of Coca Cola for her. It is an act that may have an artist labelled one of the dreaded “d” words – difficult or a diva – but in reality, Rainey knew the game she was playing: “All they want is my voice. Well, I done learnt that and they gonna treat me like I want to be treated no matter how much it hurt them,” she says. This comment in particular felt ever relevant as women musicians, even famous ones, are still being exploited: at the start of 2020, singer Kelis made claims that production duo Neptunes kept the profits from her first two records, while last month Cardi B settled a $22m (£16m) lawsuit against an ex-manager who she claimed had her sign over 50 per cent of her royalties to him.

There are so many women in music history who deserve a place in the cultural spotlight. The filthy, gregarious singer Lucille Bogan, whose songs were explicit enough to make the most worldly among us blush, deserves a second look. Her famously raunchy version of “Shave ’Em Dry” deserves to be covered by an artist like Megan Thee Stallion one day. Or how about Big Mama Thornton, the original guttural cry behind Elvis’s later hit “Hound Dog”? I’d also love to see a biopic of Gladys Bentley, who in the 1920s and 1930s delighted Harlem crowds with her drag king act. But if the current trend for fuller depictions of history continues, these innovators will get their due soon enough.

Perhaps the reason why the blues is being revisited now is because, more than ever, the music resonates today. In her Bessie Smith book, Jackie Kay writes that whether it’s the Black Lives Matter movement, the climate crisis, coronavirus or #MeToo, there will be a Smith song to accompany the times. “The blues are not past,” she says. “Bessie’s blues are current.” She recognises the prescient quality in much of Smith’s music and also underlines why women musicians like Smith are endlessly fascinating. “Pioneers don’t just lead the way in their own time; they continue to refract and reflect our time. Pioneers can perform the magic trick of being contemporary in any time.”

‘Bessie Smith’ by Jackie Kay will be published on Faber & Faber on 18 February; ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ is out now on Netflix; ‘Billie’ is available to watch on Amazon Prime Video

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