The Faces Behind The Genre: How Black Women Shaped Blues Music And Their Lasting Impact

By: Gabrielle Weeden 

How Did Blues Music Originate

The Blues were a common musical genre from the 1860s to the 1960s and originated in the Mississippi Delta. This musical genre was formed as an escape from the daily hardships of working-class black people. The music of the blues genres is distinguished by its 12-bar song form. The Blues’ style is reminiscent of call-and-response music style. The blues originated in the decades after slavery was abolished, enabling the genre to express new social and sexual realities faced by African Americans as free women and men through music. Unlike other music genres that have existed in the past, the Blues has a significant female presence. Women played an important role in the growth of the blues genre, and their contributions aided the genre greatly.

Women In Blues

One prominent female blues singer was Bessie Smith. Bessie was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on April 15, 1894 (this birth year is an estimation). Bessie was dubbed the “Empress of the Blues” for her technical and personal performances, which earned her the title of highest-paid black female artist during the blues period. She was known for being unafraid to express herself through her songs. Her music described the challenges that black women faced daily. She used her platform to inform the world about the silent struggle’s women of color face. Her desire to inform audiences about violence, racism, and sexism was impressive at the time, since many Black Americans were afraid to do so for fear of losing their jobs.

Another female blues singer who used her platform to express herself was Ma Rainey. Ma Rainey was born on April 26, 1886 in Columbus, Georgia and was known as the “mother of the blues”, she also was a mentor for Bessie Smith. Ma Rainey appeared with Fat Chappelle’s Rabbit Foot Minstrels, as well as the Tolliver’s Circus and musical Extravaganza, in the 1910s. Rainey was known for her unique performance attire which included her gold teeth, diamond headpieces, cash necklaces, and gold gowns, which gave her a rare dramatic look. Rainey signed a recording deal with Paramount Records in 1923, and she went on to release over 100 albums, many of which included notable artists such as Louis Armstrong. One of the most popular blues songs of all time was recorded by Ma Rainey in 1923 and it was called See See Ride. Rainey owned the rights to the album since she was the first to record it.

Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith had a huge impact on so many black artists. One of which barely receives credit for her talent. Willie Mae Thorton, otherwise known as “Big Mama”, was born in Ariton, Alabama, on December 11, 1926. Because of her size and strong voice, she was given the nickname “Big Mama”. Willie Mae is not as well-known as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith because she did not receive the respect she deserved for the amazing music she produced. Unfortunately, this is the case for many prominent Black women.  In 1952, she released “Hound Dog,” a 12-bar song that was later rewritten for white audiences and performed by Elvis Presley, who gained popularity and profit. 

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