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Women and the Blues

Updated on November 8, 2014

Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith

Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith dared to attack issues of domestic violence and female sexuality at a time when Black women were expected to shy away from such subjects. “Both Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith had lesbian relationships and “Prove It on Me Blues” vacillates between the subversive hidden activity of women loving women with a public declaration of lesbianism. The words express a contempt for a society that rejected lesbians” (Carby 479). Rainey and Smith were true individuals who were able to shape themselves in the context of a world that would not have them do so, and they infused society with their ideals so elegantly that many people did not know about or grasps the depth of the feminine issues they discussed in their catchy blues tunes.

If one explores the history of the blues, one is apt to find that blues music is a highly personal art form that incorporates the artists’ life experiences. These experiences are depressing in nature but applied to a lively musical backdrop that says and so what; I am still here and doing quite fine. These doubly oppressed women were able to illustrate, through music, their ability to break free from the most dire of circumstances in the midst of daily despair. In doing so, Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey were able to publicly display the recovery of their own essences. In this public process of recovery, Smith illustrates a strong feminine existence when she sings about domestic violence in Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do in stating that, if her domestic partner physically abuses her, she will act in kind. Furthermore, if she loses the battle, she will not be looking for anyone outside of the relationship to save her.

Meshell Ndegeocello

In the modern day sense, I would equate Meshell Ndegeocello to Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith due to her lyrics that deal with lesbianism, bisexuality, race, religion, misogyny, and domestic violence. One of my favorite songs recorded by Ndegeocella is Mary Magdalene. This is a song where she expresses desire for a woman who is a prostitute by societal standards:

I often watch you the way you whore yourself

You're so beautiful

You flirt and tease enviously I wish you'd flirt with me

Perhaps I'm enticed by what you are

I imagine us jumpin' the broom foolish I know that's not the life you live

You live alone in a crowded bed never remembering faces

Conversations just a body for the lonely

Spend one night with me satisfy me for free and I'll love you endlessly

I overheard you say you'd give them what they wanted

So give me what I want

Tell me I'm the only one

I want to marry you

Tell me I'm the only one

In a harlot's dress you wear the smile of a child with the faith of

Mary Magdalene

Yet you wash the feet of unworthy men

Come and I'll set you free into an endless valley of fruits both sweet and sour

And whatever displeases your palate my kisses will wash away

Stay. If you must dance, dance for me

Blessed are the pure at heart for they shall see god so close your eyes and dream

For the world will blind you and I'll judge not so that I may not be judged

Please give me what I want

Tell me I'm the only one

I want to marry you

Tell me I'm the only one

Ndegeocello has always openly asserted her bisexuality which has now landed with the acceptance of her lesbianism; however, when her career began about 20 years ago, she was considered the brilliant misfit. She asserted her sexuality, and she did not submit to prescribed social standards of beauty, apparent with her bald appearance.

Asserting Sexuality

Ma Rainey equally asserted her feminine power with her open illustration of lesbianism without blatantly stating that she was a lesbian. With this sense of feminine power, she was able to remain true to who she was while being accepted by her audiences. She did not need the fancy attire of the nightgown and high heels to gain their acceptance; however, when she did elect to dress in such a manner, she pulled that garb off in a similar graceful manner. According to Hazel Carby, traditionally Black female sexuality has been repressed in artistic literary expression (473). Ma Rainey averted this repression in her lyrics. Furthermore, she thwarted this repression in her own life and appearance. Ma Rainey’s Prove It On Me Blues, blatantly asserts lesbianism. Observe: “Went out last night with a crowd of my friends/ They must’ve been women ‘cause I don’t like no men” (Rainey). Here Rainey makes no apologies for her sexuality. She does not asks for society’s permission to openly assert who she is, and she does not asks whether the discussion is appropriate or not. Rainey was also known for adorning herself in male attire. This was not common during the era of the New Negro Movement; however, she made no apologies for her style of dress either.

Carby goes on to assert that in considering the lyrics of Black women’s blues songs, in the context of the Black literary tradition, one finds that some women, such as Rainey, were not afraid of the social perception of the writer if Black female sexuality was addressed in the artform (474). Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith asserted that women no longer required the patriarchal society’s permission to assert their sexuality. Furthermore, they did not have to be docile, fragile beings or appear to be to the patriarchal society, and they did not need male adoration as a means of existing. Now, if in the process of asserting their said sexuality they gained male adoration, that was ok too; however, it was not a necessity. During this time, domestic violence was accepted in the patriarchal society. Women were often blamed for domestic violence incidents. If a woman was beaten, one of the initial questions asked was what had she done to deserve the beating. This was partly because women were continuously stepping out of “their place” by seeking equal rights. This phenomenon opened the door for Rainy and Smith to explore and attack domestic violence in their blues songs.

Amiri Baraka’s character Clay uttered the following words regarding Bessie Smith in his fed up rant to Lula in Dutchman the Slave: “If Bessie Smith had killed some white people she wouldn't have needed that music. She could have talked very straight and plain about the world. No metaphors. No grunts. No wiggles in the dark of her soul. Just straight two and two are four. Money. Power. Luxury. Like that. All of them. Crazy niggers turning their backs on sanity. When all it needs is that simple act. Murder. Just murder! Would make us all sane” (Baraka). I think that he sums up Bessie Smith’s T’aint Nobody’s Business If I Do with these words. Baraka did not literally illustrate what Bessie Smith was trying to say in her music; however, I think that there was coded language incorporated in her lyrics that asserted that she was a free woman.. This sense of freedom was asserted to the wider society and to any man who would attempt to posit her in an inferior position.

Baraka, Amiri. "Dutchman the Slave." 1 Jan. 1964. Web. 2 Oct. 2014.

Carby, Hazel. "It Jus Be’s Dat Way Sometime: The Sexual Politics of Women’s Blues." The Jazz Cadence of American Culture. Columbia University Press, 1 Jan. 1986. Web. 3 Oct. 2014.

Rainey, Ma. Prove It on Me Blues. 1928.

Smith, Bessie. Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do. 1923.

Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Meshell Ndegeocello

Bessie | Source
Ma | Source
Meshell | Source

Mary Magdalene


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