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The Role of the Music Industry in Defining African American Culture in the USA through Blues Music

Updated on May 28, 2015

The Music Industry in 1920’s USA was racially segregated, exploitative and ideologically categorised. For Black female singers, the double marginalisation defined many of their experiences in the music industry and the type of music they could produce. Through an exploration of the song lyrics of Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith and Julia Lee, we can see how the music industry played a role in defining African American (AA) Culture in the USA and reinforced stereotypes of sexual promiscuity through Blues music.

AA singers used music as a means of singing about their life experiences, of poverty, injustice, love, lust, and crime (Feinstein, 1985). The music industry was highly racially segregated which was an ideological construction. Black music was marketed to black audiences on the race charts whereas essentially the same type of music by white artists was on the pop chart and sold to white audiences (Greene, 2014). There was a distinct difference in the kind of music deemed appropriate for white audiences however, and many AA artists were distinguished by their gawdy lyrics and songs about sexual conquest, desire, and experiences.


Ma Rainey, the original queen of the Blues, was one such artist. The sexual nature of her lyrics can be seen in songs like “Farewell Daddy Blues which allude to promiscuity but also agency in the image of a strong female unwilling to succumb to abuse (Granda, 2011).While she recorded 93 titles for Paramount in the 1920s, a third of which were listed as her own compositions, like Bessie Smith she received no royalties (Morgan & Barlow, 1992). As was typical at the time, Black artists were often paid flat rates for their recordings and had no idea of copyright laws which benefitted the almost exclusively white music industry and exploited black artists. Part of this involved reinforcing the stereotypes of a highly sexualised outlaw culture in order to distance themselves from the black music they were selling on race charts to black audiences (Scott, 2008). Bessie Smith, one of Ma Rainey’s disciples, was born in Chattanooga and like her teacher, had a powerhouse voice (Feinstein, 1985). Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith both established the female tradition of representing love and sex as parts of everyday life in the African American community as can be seen in the song “Baby Doll” and “It makes my love come down” where Smith sings of being in a stable relationship with a steady partner. The lyrics reinforce this with cuddling as well as sex “Cuddle close, turn out the light/ do just what you did last night”.

These female singers also sang of rejection in relation to sexual encounters. While male blues singers boasted of sexual exploits such as Tampa Red in the song “It’s Tight Like That”, female Blues singers like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith sang about their independence in the face of rejection from men who decided to leave them, singing “I’m a good woman and I can get plenty men” in the song “Young Women’s Blues” (Bratcher, 2007). Black women such as Rainey and Smith who engaged in sexual encounters freely were condemned by the National Association of Coloured women who tried to put an end to sexual harassment (Owen, 2001). However this expression of sexual freedom was one of the few forms of freedom they had and even that was used as a basis of stereotyping. Rural singers from Minstrel shows were used to the ingrained image of a highly sexualised black woman in minstrel show tradition due to the Western exoticising of the black body with its supposedly voracious sexual appetite (Granda, 2011). While they sang of their sexual desire as a means of expressing their right to choose their partner and exercise their sexual identity, it also put them in a sexual and racial bind as it contributed to stereotypes that the AA race was promiscuous, lawless and a bad influence on impressionable white youth (Slade, 2007).


Similarly, Julia Lee also sang of sexual desire in her song “Don’t save it too long” using euphemisms to describe giving sex freely and enjoying sexual pleasure “If you save it too long it won’t do you no good”. There is an overlapping of metaphors and double entrendes for example “guns that are idle soon lose their power” and “sweet cream soon turns sour” alluding to sexual drive and potency in men and women. This type of metaphorical allusion was very popular and can also be seen in the song “Don’t come too soon” with the lyrics “Papa just take time cause there’s lots of it to spare” and very sexually blatant lyrics “Get a grip of your bat and smack a few balls” which would have been far too explicit for Popular Charts and white audiences.

Some female Blues singers portrayed Black women’s expression of sexuality as self-confidence. The ethnomusicologist Francis Bebey explains that the objective of African music was not to produce pleasing sounds but to express everyday experiences through emotive onomatopoeic sound and hence the voice is able to adapt to the context of the song (Hamilton, 2000). Bessie Smith sang angrily of sexual rejection and of sexual desire with a deep rumble and husky need, using rasp, growls, shakes and inflects emotion. She created sexual identities for black women in her songs that were greater than just the mammy figure and prostitutes. Through her lyrics describing the sexual desire of Black women, she was able to create three dimensional characters such as the sexually fulfilled woman in “Empty Bed Blues” that her audience could relate to, empowering women within both AA and White culture (Bratcher, 2007).

In the song “Empty Bed Blues”, Bessie Smith sings with suggestive detail about the physical pleasures of sex using imagery and double entrendes “Oh he could grind my coffee cause he had a brand new grind/ He boiled my fresh cabbage and he made it awful hot/…./When he put in the bacon it overflowed the pot” (Hamilton, 2000, p133). “Empty Bed Blues” was one of the most sensational songs of its kind, with other raunchy blues hits like “Handyman”, “Kitchen Man”, and “I got the best Jelly Roll in Town”. While it was extremely popular when it was released, many modern day music buffs and historians of suggest that it is inauthentic, and commercialised, compared to the frank and uncompromising approach to sex that blues should have. Singers like Bessie Smith, Leroy Carr and Lonnie Johnson shaped early race records as a music for urban AA’s about the trials of modern life and sex. While early social commenters believed the music industry exploited a vulnerable black market and leading black urban dwellers astray, others contested this and believed that the lyrics had their roots in progressive social change and saw a vibrant authenticity in black sexual song (Hamilton, 2000). Benjamin Botkin, a left-wing folklorist, thought of sexual song as part of the authentic as it was ‘living lore’, a dynamic shifting lore that was part of the metropolis and urban life, a direct expression of social change and culture conflict (Hamilton, 2000)

The AA’s who created and listened to the Blues were part of a great migration from field to factory, from the country to the city, and ‘urban’ soon became a euphemism for Black. Part of this huge movement meant that social pressures such as poverty and racial injustice were more widespread and pieces of everyday life such as sex were the substance of songs to vocalise the desire for social change. Frith suggests that it is a cultural ideology which gives rise to the association between AA music and sex and the body due to the ingrained belief that they are a more primitive race and therefore more in touch with the body and sexual expression. “Going primitive” is as similar to “getting physical” (Frith, 1996). This was a failure to see that while the music did have a lascivious tone to it, there was an underlying tone of grief, of sorrow, of a race seeking to establish itself and its home (Hamilton, 2000). Music critic Humphrey Lyttleton supports this, suggesting that Smith used her capacity of phrasing and melodic variation to deliver a song with more emotional weight (Bratcher, 2007).


Some theorists suggest that black women were helpless to the demands of the music industry and the expectation of songs of a sexual nature however artists like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey sang not only of erotic encounters but also the societal conditions they were subject to. Hazel Carby (Ducille, 1993) suggests that they claimed their sexual subjectivity through their songs and redefined black sexuality on their own terms. This implies that despite the demands of the music industry, they were active agents in their own history and were engaged in the creation of their own sexual identity and fluidity in sexuality (Davis, 1998). While they allowed themselves to be exploited as a stereotype, they were also able to defy it and the commodification of their bodies through songs like “Thinking Blues” which presents an image of a self-possessed, intelligent, funny yet erotic woman, saying that a black woman can be all of these things, not just her sexuality (Granda, 2011).

Through the exploration of black female artists’ lyrics, looking specifically at Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Julia Lee, we can see that their sexual lyrics were as much a demand of the music industry as an assertion of their sexual identity. Although the demands of the music industry meant that in order to sell black music to black audiences, the industry had to distance themselves from the message it conveyed. This ultimately encouraged artists like Bessie Smith and her contemporaries to sing of sexual desire, exaggerate the comedic quality that was expected of black artists, and display the exotic or inherent ‘blackness’ that they were stereotyped with (Scaruffi, 2003). Yet in doing so, they were able to subvert the stereotypes in their own way and present alternative ways to define black sexuality and images of identification.



Reference List

Bratcher, M. (2007). Words and songs of Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Nina Simone: sound motion, blues spirit, and African memory. New York: Routledge

Davis, A. (1998). Blue legacies and black feminism Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. New York: Pantheon Books

Ducille, Ann (1993). Blues Notes on Black Sexuality: Sex and the Texts of Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen. Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 3 (3). Special Issue: African American Culture and Sexuality (Jan. 1993), 418 – 444 University of Texas Press. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/stable/3704015

Feinstein, E. (1985) Bessie Smith. Harmondsworth: Penguin

Firth, S. (1996). Rhythm: Race, Sex, and the Body. Performing rites: on the value of popular music, 123 – 144. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press

Greene, K. “Just a Dream”: Big Bill Broonzy, the Blues and Chicago’s Black Metropolis. Journal of Urban History 2014, Vol 40(1), 166 – 136. DOI: 10.1177/0096144213489261

Granda, V. The Politics of Black Sexuality in Classic Blues. Nota Bene: Canadian Undergraduate Journal of Musicology. 2011, Volume 4(2), p33 – 46. Retrieved from http://ir.lib.uwo.ca/notabene/vol4/iss2/7

Hamilton, M. (2000). Sexuality, Authenticity and the Making of the Blues Tradition. Past & Present, No. 169, 132 – 160. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Past and Present Society.

H, S. (December 1 2012) A Deeper Meaning to Sexual Euphemisms, How the Blues used Sex to Battle Racism. Retrieved on from http://blogs.longwood.edu/sarahh/2012/12/01/a-deeper-meaning-to-sexual-euphemisms-how-the-blues-used-sex-to-battle-racism/

Morgan, T. (1992). From Cakewalks to concert halls: an illustrated history of African American popular music from 1895 to 1930. Washington DC: Elliot & Clark

Owen C (Narrator). (2001). Walk on by: The story of popular song: The road to rock and roll. UK: British Broadcasting Corporation

Scott, M. (2008) Blues Empress in black Chattanooga Bessie Smith and the emerging urban south. Urbana: University of Illinois Press

Slade, P. (13 Sept 2007) Paul Slade on the most sexually explicit lyrics in the history of popular music. The Telegraph. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/rockandjazzmusic/3667846/How-sex-turned-the-blues-red-hot.html

SparkNotes Editors. (2005). SparkNote on Bessie Smith. Retrieved April 9, 2015, from http://www.sparknotes.com/biography/bessiesmith/

Scaruffi, P. (2003) A brief history of Blues Music. Retrieved April 13, 2015 from http://www.scaruffi.com/history/blues.html

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