By: Emily McAfee, NWHM Intern
Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, 1917
In the early 20th Century, the American working and middle classes began searching for modes of self-identification beyond their occupations, and a burgeoning mass entertainment industry set an example for how to fill this identity void. Performers—of different genders and various races—publicly enacted the identities they wanted, as opposed to the identities they had been given. This new entertainment culture was platform upon which all kinds of Americans reinvented the parameters of their self-expression and reclaimed (if only briefly) ownership of their public identities. A brilliant example of this phenomenon can be found in female blues singers. During its heyday in the 1920s, the blues were a forum in which black women could seize control of their public identity and redefine it on their own terms.
A powerful figure in this movement was Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, one of the earliest professional female blues singers—and one of the first to record. She was known for her deep, raspy voice, and the incredible impression she would make before she even began to sing. Blues women like Ma Rainey seized ownership over the freedom of the black female body: to travel, to be public, to love and lust. These themes—of freedom, mobility, and sexuality, are prominent in Ma Rainey’s blues.
During the early 20th Century, the movement of African-Americans to urban spaces in the North was a massive demographic shift that redefined part of the African-American experience. This change was reflected in the blues genre, as women like Ma Rainey sang representations of black displacement and the liberating aspects of a newfound mobility. Female blues singers stressed the different experiences of black men and women, not only in migration, but also in domestic spaces, and in life more generally.
Notable songs: “Traveling Blues,” “Runaway Blues,” and “Lost Wandering Blues”
Women blues singers also helped to drag sexuality out of the so-called Victorian private sphere and into the public through their music. Their “sumptuous and desirable” presence constituted a significant aspect of their power. The overarching sexual themes and their “provocative and pervasive sexual—including homosexual—imagery” directly confronted the idealized, nonsexual depictions of heterosexual love that characterized mainstream song formulas. Not only did blues women become models for the female ownership of female sexuality, but they also established images of strong and resilient women, undermining the contemporaneous norm of male dominance.
Notable songs: “Blame It on the Blues,” “Shave ‘Em Dry Blues,” and “Lawd, Send Me a Man Blues”
Both of these themes are heavily intertwined with implications of freedom. The freedom to control the movement of one’s own body and the freedom to express one’s desired sexuality were significant victories for African-American women in this era. Ma Rainey captured—and contributed to—this effort through her music.
Hazel V. Carby, “‘It jus’ Be’s Dat Way Sometime’: The Sexual Politics of Women’s blues,” Radical America 20 (1986)
Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (1998)