To look in the “Blues” section of most record stores, you’d think it was only men who had troubles worth singing about. This week it is my pleasure to prove this assumption SPECTACULARLY WRONG, with a glimpse at some of the women who have howled, growled, whimpered and moaned their way through the blues.
Gertrude “Ma” Rainey is called the Mother of the Blues. She grew up performing in minstrel and vaudeville shows around 1900, when she was a young teen. Her renown was built around the fact that she and her husband, William “Pa” Rainey, incorporated the blues into their traveling performances. A risky move, considering their audiences were mostly white and their subject matter was born and raised by African American suffering at the hands of European Americans. But the move paid off, as Ma’s notorious personality (August Wilson wrote a play about it) preceded her and audiences paid to see her perform AND see if she would lost her temper onstage. When jazz music exploded in the ’20s and ’30s, Ma performed with the best players in the world: Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, and Sidney Bichet, among others. Oh, and did I forget to mention that she was queer and sang openly about her love for women? Silly me. Ma flew in the face of the status quo her whole life, and so certainly never lacked for song material. Her music is much harder to find than that of the men she played with (whaddya know? Fat black lesbians made record executives uncomfortable a hundred years ago TOO!), but any search for it will be worth your while.
Bessie Smith met and befriended Ma Rainey in the 1920s when they performed together (Bessie as a dancer, Rainey as the singer) in the Stokes troupe. If Ma was cocky and brazen, Bessie was her more agressive counterpart. She and her second husband, Jack Gee, fought fiercely over Bessie’s bisexual affairs, drinking, and touring, and one of Gee’s affairs ultimately ended the couples’ mercurial marriage. Bessie performed on Broadway with Sidney Bichet in the ’20s, and spent as much, if not more, of her time acting than singing the blues. Her recording of “St. Louis Blues” with Louis Armstrong, however, is one of the most famous lady-led blues songs in American history.
Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton explored R&B and Rock n’ Roll throughout her career, but her harmonica playing and growl of a voice are unfiltered blues. She was openly gay and performed risque songs unabashedly. She was the first person to record “Hound Dog,” a song you might’ve heard when Elvis Presley sang it three years later. Sorry, Elvis, but hip-swiveling and tamed-down lyrics are no match for Mama’s howl.
Another of her songs, “Ball ‘n Chain,” was made famous by Janis Joplin in the ’60s.
Unlike the other women in this post, Big Mama mastered an instrument other than her instantly recognizable voice. After hearing her sing, it should be no surprise that a harmonica in her hands (and with her lung capacity) is just as fierce as any slide guitar and medicine bottle. Just listening to her introduce her band is listening to the story of women in the blues.
Who are your favorite female blues musicians, past or present? Let us know in the comments!