Femme Queer Expression in the Blues

Introduction

The Blues contained one of the most emotionally-expressive and creative artists in its time. Originating in the deep-southern roots of the Mississippi Delta post-slavery, the blues gave artists the opportunity to express the many negative outcomes caused by black oppression in America. As well as addressing issues, female artists began integrating emotions that dealt with recurring misogyny and gender norms. As the genre evolved through the 1920s, women, in particular, began to profit off of freely integrating sexual thoughts in their music. This was not a problem, simply an introduction to what most of our current music contains to this day. As many music marketing companies know, as well as support from simple human psychology, sex sells. With this theme, in such socially premature times, the blues also allowed many women to become open about their sexual orientation. Blues artists, such as Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Bessie Jackson created a musical platform that allowed them to fully express their identity in the blues.

Bessie Smith

  • Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1894
  • Properly known as “Empress of the Blues”. 
  • Her first debut was with Ma Rainey in the Rabbit Foot Minstrels show in 1912. 
  • One of the first hits she recorded was “Downhearted Blues“. This song caused her to gain major popularity, in which she became the one of the highest-paid black entertainers at the time. 
  • She was prominently known for her dismissive lyrics towards men.
  • She would continually argue with her husband, Jack Gee, over her adopted son, Jack Jr and her affairs with women.  
  • It was rumored that she was in a relationship with Ma Rainey and other women around her crew, such as Lillian Simpson. 
  • She performed songs like “Empty Bed Blues”, she goes into major detail about a “deep-sea diving woman”, but switched the lyrics around to sing about a man when recorded. 
  • As well as in songs she performed like “It’s Dirty, But Good”, the lyrics stated:

“I know women that don’t like men/The way they do is a crying sin/It’s dirty, but good, oh, yes, it’s dirty, but good/There ain’t much difference, it’s just dirty, but good.”

Ma Rainey

  • Born in Columbus, Georgia in 1886
  • Properly known as the “Mother of Blues”
  • In one of her most popularly-known songs, “Prove It on Me” (1928) she sings:
“They said I do it, ain’t nobody caught me/Sure got to prove it on me/Went out last night with a crowd of my friends/They must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men.” 
  • In the same song, she also sings, “It’s true I wear a collar and a tie…Talk to the gals just like any old man,”
  • It’s clearly obvious that Ma Rainey did not care for the restrictive society in which she placed these lyrics, creating early free musical expression for the LGBTQ community. 
  • She also sang about relations with men other hit songs like “Shave Em’ Dry”(1924)
  • After the 1920’s, she began to switch to more jazz-like genre which was heavily similar to blues at the time. 
 

Bessie Jackson

  • Lucille Bogan, also known by her stage name, Bessie Jackson, was born in Armory, Mississippi in 1897. 
  • She sang along with Ma Rainey and Bessie Jackson in a sub-genre of the blues, “dirty blues”. 
  • With songs mostly filled with alcohol, sex, and prostitution, one of her greatest hit was “Women Don’t Need No Men” (1927). 
  • In another musical hit, “BD Women Blues” (1935) the lyrics state: 
B.D. women, you just can’t understand/They got a head like a sweet angel and they walk just like a natural man.
  • A B.D. woman is slang for a bull dagger, or a lesbian woman that appears masculine. 
  • Bessie Jackson’s “BD Women Blues” was easily one of the most openly blatant queer songs in the blues era. 

Conclusion

In all regards, it is necessary to recognize the amount of free expression Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Bessie Jackson exemplified in the blues genre; not only as women, but sexually-liberated black women. Other researchers have acknowledged their significant influence in black female music by creating bio-pics, such as Bessie directed by Dee Rees, staring Queen Latifah. Without their infinite amount of courage in music, we would not have legends like Queen Latifah, Lil Kim, or even upcoming icon, Megan The Stallion. We now have the power and slightly-reformed society that must protect black women at all costs, despite sexual-orientation or musical expression. 

Bessie (2015)

Works Cited

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