Feminine Hues of the Blues: Women in the Genre
The Blues is one of Black America’s greatest contributions to music. Its origins are pinpointed to the Mississippi Delta in the late nineteenth century at a time of high social tension during the Jim Crow era. With segregation and discrimination at an all time high, the Blues began as an outlet for Black musicians in expressing their struggles and triumphs in everyday life. It incorporated elements of negro spirituals as well as Black American folk music. Other key elements that accompany Blues music are the guitar, harmonica, penny whistle, and piano.
Blues was one of the first genres with Black women at its forefront. In fact, black women were arguably the most influential in the popularization of this new sound. “Crazy Blues”, written by Perry Bradford, was one of the first blues records ever issued. It was recorded by Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Hounds in 1920, selling at one point 75,000 copies a week.
Women of the Blues, specifically Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith were instrumental in representing the shifting roles and social limitations of women during the time. They often sang of leading openly sexual lives and the impact of money on the work they did. During this time, such lyrics were unheard of and considered vulgar, especially coming from women who were traditionally confined to the familial life of being mothers and wives.
Black women of the blues era also shifted the entire music industry, forcing white labels to take black musicians and artistry seriously. The previously mentioned success of the “Crazy Blues” record became the marker of “race records” or records marketed to black people. From this, the term “Rhythm & Blues” was coined as a way to describe the way that this new sound was now being marketed. The women of the blues went on to influence other modern genres such as rock-n-roll and soul.
Here are some of examples of the work produced by Black women in this era of music. Their captivating sounds were the heart of what we know Blues music as today.