You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down: Classic Blues Singers of the 1920s

Gee, but it’s hard to love someone
When that someone don’t love you
I’m so disgusted, heartbroken, too
I’ve got those downhearted blues… 1[]

Classic blues singer Bessie Smith recorded the above lyrics from the song “Downhearted Blues” on February 16, 1923. The song was her first single and it sold 780,000 records in the first six months and would go on to sell 2 million copies. [2]

Bessie Smith

Smith, along with artists like Gertrude Ma Rainey, Mamie Smith, and Alberta Hunter were responsible for bringing the blues to the forefront of America and introduced people outside of the African American community to the deep, emotional experiences that black women went through.

Classic Female Blues was a genre dominated by women in the 1920s and was the first blues genre to gain national popularity. The genre transitioned from a primarily vaudeville type of the music to a more professional entertainment based music when Mamie Smith became the first artist to record a vocal blues song in 1920.

Once record execs saw the immense demand for Smith’s first recording (which sold a million copies in a year), more female artists began recording blues records and touring around the country.

At the root of every lyric sung by any blues woman laid her sexuality and in political activist and scholar Angela Davis’ book, Blues Legacies and Black Femisim: Gertrude “Ma Rainey,” Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday she discusses how different forms of love were present in the themes of classic blues music.  “One of the most obvious ways in which the blues lyrics deviated from popular musical culture,” Davis explained, “was their provocative and pervasive sexual-including homosexual-imagery.[3]

Mamie Smith

Other themes that were articulated in women’s blues music were violence, marriage, heterosexual and homosexual relationships, and  traveling.

The music of blues women had a profound social influence on working class women. Due to the independent, courageous outlook blues singers presented in their music, they encouraged working class women to be more liberal and the artists also served as a voice for underrepresented females.
Classic blues singers also influenced the move toward black women’s’ ideology within an academic context. Many feminist scholars like Davis and Hazel Carby have cited the impact that blues singers have had on their work.
Part II of the series will showcase folk blues artists Robert Johnson and Leadbelly.

Allmusic

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