Saturday, February 16, 2008

Blues Legacies and Black Feminism

Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday by Angela Davis

I picked this up because I liked Angela Davis's Women, Race and Class, and though I don't actually listen to blues or jazz, the whole culture behind the music sounds appealing (after all, Billie Holiday and other musicians have become cultural icons; also, I used to watch VH1 Behind the Music marathons, usually leading me to buy classic rock CDs that I didn't listen to). Davis focuses on Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday as representatives of the blues tradition. While Holiday sang jazz rather than blues, Davis argues that Holiday's musical tradition sprang and resulted from blues. This is not a work of biography by any means, but some of Davis's brief references to the artists' lives certainly seem like a biography of these women would be worth reading as well. Davis at no point tries to prove or state that these women were feminists but instead she analyzes their work, looking at the lyrics themselves as well as listening to the delivery. This works best for Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. While there are cases where she refers to the tone of voice and sarcasm in these two womens' songs, for the most part, the lyrics themselves support Davis's arguments. When it comes to Billie Holiday, however, Davis argues that her lyrics are not important since most of her songs were cookie cutter songs that others chose for her, and Holiday then used her own interpretation to subvert their meaning. The argument itself is sound and convincing, but I am not very familiar with Holiday's work, so I can't judge how accurate it is because I haven't heard the songs. That was my major problem with the Holiday section - due to my own unfamiliarity with the source material, I had to take Davis's word with a grain of salt.

I actually felt that this book was a good follow up to Reconstructing Womanhood. While Carby dealt with the African-American woman novelist, and the more middle class perspective, the blues tradition was the working class side of things. Even though Carby ends her analysis with the Harlem Renaissance, and Davis basically focuses on the '20s and '30s, they still complimented each other rather well. For example, Davis talks about how many of the leading middle class blacks of the Harlem Renaissance preferred the more European sounding Ethel Waters to Bessie Smith (Carby also referred to issue that blacks were copying whites to an extent while simultaneously creating their own culture in her book), and in fact, Bessie Smith couldn't even get a record deal with a newly created black label. This also relates to another argument that Davis refutes in her book: many previous critiques have stated that Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith were not very politically conscious. As Davis argues, there are in fact anecdotes about their shows in which these women do speak out against racism, and that the existing records are not necessarily representative of their body of work as a whole. After all, these were black women being released by a white label dominated by men - of course, that is going to limit what they actually put on record vs. what they perform at their live shows. Additionally, Davis points to two protest songs in Smith's collection, and also says that her audience may very well have seen different meanings in them than the white label owners (in other words, her black audience would have seen the reference to the white men keeping her down without her having to say "white men"), something that had been occurring even in slave music when the white owners thought their slaves were singing "nonsense" songs because they were happy when in fact these songs could be rather subversive.

Additionally, these blues women sung of domestic violence in their songs, and were among the first to speak out against it publicly rather than treating it as a private matter. Many of the heroes of their songs acted on their own behalf and displayed agency, and even though many of the songs were about love and men, the women weren't pining away. The blues women's mobile and active lives also served as an example to their audiences. While Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith may not have been feminists themselves, their actions showed women as agents of their own destinies. Another important point that Davis saw in the blues was women's sexual agency. While the middle class novelist were trying to prove that black women were just as pure as white women to the point of taking away all their sexual agency (and Davis argues that this, too, was important in its way), in blues, women spoke of their sexual desires and wants. I noticed that Davis seemed to use certain songs quite a bit to prove some of her different points, but for the most part, she made sure to use a variety of songs for her arguments and this showed that her conclusions and ideas applied to the body of these artists' works, and not just a few anomalies.

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