Women and the Blues: Freedom of Expression

by: Claire Jackson


Blues music presented a way for Black women to express themselves and their independence in a very special way. Lyrics in the blues genre could sometimes be very expressive romantically and sexually, something that wasn’t often heard of in the 1920s and 1930s. Some very prominent singers of the time include Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Mamie Smith. 



These powerful and talented women opened a door for female discussion of sexuality through song that otherwise had not existed. Sexuality in the Black experience could not be expressed through enslaved music, and what was expressed was heavily metaphorical or implied. Blues articulated emotion in a more outright manner, and as shown in the examples above, loneliness and pain were also becoming more popular emotions to showcase as well. 

Women like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Mamie Smith were allowed to present agency and feelings through song without the veil of ragtime high-energy performance or something of that sort that would cater to white audiences. Their performances in the Blues genre reflected the Black consciousness, especially the Black female consciousness and whatever pain or prowess came with that. Ma Rainey in particular sang of sexual love. In the newly secular space of Black music, these themes and motifs were highly popular and resonated with audiences that could relate. Mamie Smith sang of agency and the choice of marriage, the pain of loneliness, and everything in between. With the rising Black entertainment industry in the background, there was an emphasis on changing power dynamics and women’s roles, which made her music all the more powerful with strong lyrics and clear points of view. 

Overall, Black women found power and prominence in Blues music because it is a platform and genre where their pain is finally understood and can be expressed through song. The genre allowed them to find mainstream success, Bessie Smith in particular. Their lyrics describe sorrow, sexual love, loneliness, loss, and many more themes, making the genre vast and abundant. 

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