All brazen women in popular music, it could be argued, owe a debt to Bessie Smith. The no-nonsense, deep-voiced singer, nicknamed the Empress of the Blues, made more money than any other Black performer of her time, recording 160 songs between 1923 and 1931, many about sexual desire, abusive relationships, and other everyday interpersonal issues affecting Black women in the post–Civil War South. She managed her own career (and her troupe’s) in a record industry made up of predominantly male executives.
She was a baller (instigating bacchanalian trysts with both men and women) and a brawler: Once, a man made a drunken advance at one of her singers and she punched him in the face. When that same guy later stabbed her, she ran after him, a knife in her stomach, only to be back onstage performing the next afternoon. But the frosting on Smith’s take-no-shit cake? The time she singlehandedly confronted a group of Klansmen who had surrounded her tent after a South Carolina show, yelling at them, “What the fuck you think you’re doin’?” and running them off into the night, white sheets tucked between their legs.
But bigger and badder than any of Smith’s individual actions were the cumulative effects her fearlessness, drive, and talent would have on the musical landscape for women—especially Black women. The classic 12-bar sound of elation through anguish grew out of slave chants, chain-gang hollers, and gospel hymns—all African traditions of seeking light during the hardest times—and in the late 19th century in the still very segregated South, the blues moved out of the fields and into the juke joints and brothels, where song and dance were part of a prostitute’s repertoire. But it was Smith (portrayed by Queen Latifah in HBO’s recent biopic) who brought the blueswoman to the masses. She busked the streets of Chattanooga as a teenager, eventually belting her way through year-round tent shows until she became the main attraction and scored a deal with Columbia Records. She and her mentor Ma Rainey—a flamboyant performer who could give the Empress a run for fierceness—proved that women singers were no longer relegated to church or the private sphere, nor did they have to be light-skinned or doe-eyed to attract attention. Smith commanded a room with the power of her voice, her charisma, and her satirical, subversive takes on gender roles and heteronormative relationships. Of course, it didn’t hurt that she could put the fear of God into anyone who crossed her.
In many ways, Smith and classic female blues–era cohorts like Rainey, Mamie Smith, and Ida Cox shaped not only the sound but also the attitudes that would go on to dominate rock ’n’ roll (Janis Joplin named Smith as one of her greatest influences, even paying for her headstone) and the loose, storytelling swagger of country music (Lucinda Williams once said she was drawn to writing the “modern-day blues song” in the vein of Smith). From Beyoncé to Nicki Minaj, women across all of today’s musical genres have walked a path paved by pioneering women of the blues, and yet you rarely hear much about the women of today’s blues. Like the genre itself, the contemporary blueswoman is less a purebreed than a singer-songwriter telling it like it is—any which way she can.
At the heart of every traditional blues song is a call and a response—whether it’s between a singer and a screeching guitar, or a singer and the hip-swaying moan of an audience. It’s a release for both parties, a way for the testifier and the testified to feel good about feeling bad. The late Koko Taylor, probably the most revered blueswoman of the past 50 years, once explained her role as a blues performer: “When I write a song, I’m thinking about people in general, everyday living…. Like when I wrote this tune ‘Baby Please Don’t Dog Me’…. Now that shoe might not fit my feet. That shoe might not fit your feet. But that shoe do fit somebody’s feet.… Some woman somewhere really feels this way. These are the words she would like to say.”
In the decades after emancipation, Bessie Smith called out to her community—Black working-class women in the South—singing about one of few true freedoms they had: autonomy over their own bodies and sexuality. Smith didn’t sugarcoat women’s sexual appetites, groaning and elongating just the right notes on straightforward tracks like “You Got to Give Me Some” and “Empty Bed Blues.” Nor did she romanticize marriage or needing a man, messages that wouldn’t be echoed in mainstream culture for generations, singing in “Young Woman’s Blues,” “No time to marry, no time to settle down/ I’m a young woman and ain’t done runnin’ ’round.” But the greatest recurring theme in her music was domestic abuse, creating a public discourse about how women should be treated and offering an opposing take on the freewheelin’ bluesman who, in the words of Robert Johnson, was “going to beat my woman, until I get satisfied.” In “It Won’t Be You,” Smith, also a comedian and actress, jokes about having left her abusive ex, telling him that even if her next lover “beats me and breaks my heart, it won’t be you.”
Though today’s blues-spirited woman may draw from different sounds (like folk or rock or hip hop), she still questions what’s expected of her and admits despair when she falls prey to those expectations—all in the name of lessening that burden for others. “The blues is a base,” says Ruthie Foster, who received a Grammy nomination for Best Blues Album this year. “It’s just as close as gospel to me, as a place to start from. To be able to sit with an acoustic guitar, or even rock out with it, and feel like you’ve got witnesses—that’s what the blues is about, right?”
Foster, who has been in the business for more than 20 years, sings a more uplifting brand of blues. There is an earthiness to her latest album, Promise of a Brand New Day, which she made with producer Meshell Ndegeocello last year—a tone less gritty than your stereotypical whiskey-soaked, guitar-wailing blues record. But on tracks like “Outlaw,” her female protagonist “bows down to no man, although she’s in love with three/ She cannot dig machismo, but she really can dig some masculinity,” she sings, hearkening back to the gender-flipping spirit of Smith’s reign—a woman whose very first single, “Down Hearted Blues,” concluded with the proclamation, “I got the world in a jug, the stopper’s in my hand/ I’m gonna hold it until you men come under my command.”
Foster has had a moderately successful career, earning three Grammy nominations, three Blues Music Awards, and a Living Blues Critics Award in the past five years. But there are many levels to success in the blues world, she says. She draws a distinction between “those of us who are sitting in bars, playing Mississippi John Hurt to Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ [Hopkins]” and folks like Derek Trucks and the late Johnny Winter, who were often on the road selling out arenas. Artists like Trucks, Winter, Joe Bonamassa, the late B.B. King, and crossover darlings the Black Keys are perhaps today’s most commercially viable blues musicians—notably all men, and, with the exception of King, all white.
Despite this, Foster says she has never felt pushed to the sidelines in the blues community because she’s a Black woman. She is, however, aware of the number of women who have never reached the same pinnacle of success as their male peers. Like, for example, Bettye LaVette, who cracked the Top 10 R&B charts in 1962 and still goes out on the road week after week, playing for President Obama one night and slot-machine crowds in Saskatchewan another. “Some of these women give it all to the point where they don’t have voices anymore after years and years of playing, and there’s still not the recognition that should be happening,” Foster says.
For Foster, though, not pushing through to the mainstream was, in part, a choice. Unlike rock, country, or hip hop, where artists pay their bills with iTunes sales, product-shilling, or hype created through media visibility, the blues artist earns her income mostly on the road. “I backed off, and the reason is family,” Foster says of her partner and their 3-year-old daughter. “The importance of having a well-rounded life just comes first… I just wanted to be home a little more, and really appreciate when I’m up on stage, knowing that’s where I want to be.”
The quest for work-life balance, “having it all,” if you will, is not confined to the blueswoman (or man). But society’s shifting gender roles left blueswomen like Smith in the dust when the Great Depression hit and brought the Roaring Twenties to a halt. Record sales plummeted and vaudeville theaters closed; plus, the more refined sounds of swing and jazz replaced Smith’s brand of deep, guttural blues. For a Black female performer, a showbiz career had to be made on Broadway or in Hollywood—that is, if you were light-skinned. If you were not, like Smith, then you were asked to kowtow to white producers and revamp your sound, performing sappy standards like “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” in conservative ball gowns instead of her trademark fringe and sassy headdresses. Any voice and power that Smith allotted to working-class Black women in their daily lives was suddenly erased as well, as job opportunities, no matter how menial, could be lost to the white women who were now driven into the workforce.
Over the next few decades, the music industry continued to evolve and change, but its dismissal of women persisted. The blues became the sound of a man and his guitar, and men dominated everything the blues helped create, from R&B and doo-wop to folk and rock. The kind of progress that Smith and Co. ushered in for women musicians would not be felt again until the 1960s, when Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, and Janis Joplin commandeered stages—and even then, much of their early success was mired by men who controlled their careers.
Today, very few women artists are associated first and foremost with the blues—Bonnie Raitt, Shemekia Copeland, and Susan Tedeschi come to mind—while many more straddle the hyphenated worlds of blues-rock or folk-soul. Grammy-nominated Beth Hart, who has graced the covers of many blues magazines and toured with popular blues guitarist Bonamassa, considers herself simply a singer-songwriter, influenced by tastes from rock to reggae. But with her gravelly voice and outspoken struggles, she embodies the tough blueswoman spirit; on “Trouble,” from her new record, Better Than Home, you can imagine her heroine storming in and belting, “I didn’t come to make trouble, but there’s a war on the rise!”
Yet despite her reluctance toward labeling, Hart says she does connect to what’s at the heart of the blues. “It is a great fighting type of music,” she says. “It’s the kind of music that, yes, divulges its pain and insecurities, but not ever in a way of defeat…. [It’s] in a way of being up in your face and saying, ‘I’m not going to back down. I’m not going to give up on myself, I’m not going to give up on life.’”
Other popular and up-and-coming bluesy artists are even harder to define: Though Alabama Shakes front woman Brittany Howard can wring a note from the deepest pain in her soul, the band remain heroes in the alt-rock circuit; though rooted in folk, Valerie June stirs up Nina Simone–like heartache with the inflections of her voice and acoustic guitar; and regardless of being dismissed as quirky Americana, Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Lee Segarra brings a bluesy emotional urgency to the rape elegy “The Body Electric.” Then, of course, there are the women artists who have little to do with the blues musically but embody the blues credo of letting women feel okay about being bad, like Nicki Minaj’s “Boss Ass Bitch,” Miranda Lambert’s “Fastest Girl in Town,” and Sia’s “Big Girls Cry.”
In coming years, the blues may get pushed further into the musical margins, but the spirit of the fiery, fearless blueswoman is something the emotionally burdened can’t live without—and probably won’t have to, as long as tough broads keep singing their truths and audiences keep recognizing those truths as their own. In that respect, Beyoncé is probably the closest thing we have to a modern-day testifier to women’s cultural and sexual needs, inciting countless posts and retweets over the lyrics to “Flawless” (“I took some time to live my life/ But don’t think I’m just his little wife”), while inverting the gendered hip hop bravado in “Drunk in Love” (“I get filthy when that liquor get into me/ Why can’t I keep my fingers off it, baby?”).
Bessie Smith would be proud. You can almost hear Beyoncé invoking Smith’s “Preachin’ the Blues” lament today:
I will learn you something if you listen to this song
I ain’t here to try to save your soul
Just wanna teach you how to save your good jelly roll.