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The Forgotten Story of America’s First Black Superstars

In the 1920s US, glamorous, funny black female singers were the blues' first – and revolutionary hitmakers.

BBC Culture

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Bessie Smith

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On Valentine's Day 1920, a 28-year-old singer named Mamie Smith walked into a recording studio in New York City and made history. Six months later, she did it again.

The music industry had previously assumed that African Americans wouldn't buy record players, therefore there was no point in recording black artists. The entrepreneurial songwriter Perry Bradford, a man so stubborn he was known as "Mule", knew better. "There's 14 million Negroes in our great country and they will buy records if recorded by one of their own," he told Fred Hagar at Okeh Records. When a white singer dropped out of a recording session at the last minute, Bradford convinced Hagar to take a chance on Smith, a Cincinnati-born star of the Harlem club scene, and scored a substantial hit. Bradford then decided to use Smith to popularise a form of music that had been packing out venues in the South for almost 20 years. On 10 August, Smith and an ad hoc band called the Jazz Hounds recorded Bradford’s Crazy Blues. Thus the first black singer to record anything also became the first to record the blues.

Rarely has the music industry’s received wisdom been upended by a single hit. By selling an estimated one million copies in its first year, Crazy Blues was like the first geyser of oil in untapped ground, instantly revealing a huge appetite for records made by and for black people. As labels such as Okeh, Paramount and Columbia rushed into the so-called "race records" market, they snapped up dozens of women like Smith, ("Queen of the Blues"), including Gertrude "Ma" Rainey ("Mother of the Blues"), Bessie Smith ("Empress of the Blues"), Ida Cox ("Uncrowned Queen of the Blues"), Ethel Waters, Sara Martin, Edith Wilson, Victoria Spivey, Sippie Wallace and Alberta Hunter. "One of the phonograph companies made over four million dollars on the Blues," reported The Metronome in 1922. "Now every phonograph company has a coloured girl recording. Blues are here to stay." The classic blues was African-American culture's first mainstream breakthrough and, for several years, it was effectively a female art form.

The female blues singers were on the losing side of a long, complicated argument about what the blues should be.

Over a century later, however, it's a different story. The reputation of Bessie Smith, the subject of a 1997 biography by Jackie Kay, was kept alive by prominent admirers such as Janis Joplin and Nina Simone, while Rainey's was revived by August Wilson's 1982 play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and, more recently, by George C Wolfe's movie adaptation. The rest are largely forgotten. The history of the blues is dominated by men.


Mamie Smith, pictured with her band the Jazz Hounds, was the first black singer to make a record (Credit: Getty Images)

This eclipse is the result of a concerted effort by cultural gatekeepers, across several decades, to valorise certain aspects of the African-American experience while denigrating others. The female blues singers were on the losing side of a long, complicated argument about what the blues should be.

'Life's way of talking'

The man who published the sheet music for Crazy Blues was WC Handy, a songwriter, businessman and self-proclaimed "Father of the Blues". In 1903, he recalled in his 1941 autobiography, he was sitting in a railroad station in Tutwiler, Mississippi when he heard a man playing "the weirdest music I had ever heard" on a guitar, using a knife blade as a capo. Handy's anonymous musician now resembles the archetypal bluesman: a solitary, enigmatic vagrant, singing songs of "suffering and hard luck" to nobody but himself. In 1920, however, a loner with a knife wasn't going to help the commercially savvy Handy break the music industry's colour barrier. He turned instead to the flamboyant women who had honed their craft on the vaudeville and tent-show circuits, where the blues would be mixed up with comedy songs and dramatic routines – professional entertainers who knew how to delight a crowd.

For black, working-class women, the classic blues was an unprecedented new arena of self-expression, which gave voice to overt sexuality, the peril of abusive men, and even queer perspectives.

One such woman was Gertrude Pridgett, aka Ma Rainey, who had been performing the blues for more than 20 years when she recorded her first session for Paramount in 1923 at the age of 37. Her journey from Georgia to Chicago in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom represents the Great Migration of hundreds of thousands of black people from the rural South to the urban North during that period. Those migrants craved music that built a bridge between their old and new lives. The classic blues, sometimes known as "vaudeville blues" or "city blues," was a hybrid of rural folk and urban pop, southern roots and cosmopolitan panache. Broadly speaking, the playing was slick, the rhythms hot, the songwriting polished, the lyrics tough and ironic, the stagewear glamorous and the stars overwhelmingly female. As one 1926 study observed, "upwards of 75% of the songs are written from a woman's point of view. Among the blues singers who have gained more or less national recognition there is scarcely a man's name to be found."


Gertrude "Ma" Rainey was one of several black women who dominated the classic blues – African-American culture's first mainstream breakthrough (Credit: Getty Images)

August Wilson's Rainey calls the blues "life's way of talking". For black, working-class women, the classic blues was an unprecedented new arena of self-expression which gave voice to overt sexuality, the peril of abusive men (like Bessie Smith's husband), and even queer perspectives. Bessie Smith had affairs with several chorus girls while Ma Rainey sang, in 1928's Prove It on Me, "I went out last night with a crowd of my friends/ It must've been women, 'cause I don't like no men/ Wear my clothes just like a fan/ Talk to the gals just like any old man." One musician even claimed Rainey and Smith were romantically involved at one point.

Smith's versatile blues encompassed gallows humour (Send Me to the 'Lectric Chair), social commentary (Poor Man's Blues), salty innuendo (Kitchen Man) and lusty good times (Gimme a Pigfoot). The Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes wrote that Bessie conveyed "sadness… not softened with tears, but hardened with laughter, the absurd, incongruous laughter of a sadness without even a god to appeal to." In concert, Smith and her peers sang directly to the women who heard themselves in these songs and responded with cries of "Say it, sister!"


The scholar Angela Davis calls Bessie Smith "the first real 'superstar' in African-American popular culture" (Credit: Getty Images)

Like rappers decades later, the classic blues singers were flashy avatars of liberation and aspiration. "I feel my audiences want to see me becomingly gowned," said Mamie Smith, who liked to perform in diamonds and furs, "and I have spared no expense or pains in frequenting the shops of the most fashionable modists in America." Rainey performed in ostrich feathers and a triple necklace of gold coins. Bessie Smith earned more, and spent more, than anybody else. Hard-drinking, hedonistic, recklessly generous and sometimes violent, she sold a record-breaking 780,000 copies of her debut single, 1923's Downhearted Blues, in just six months and bought her own Pullman railway car to travel in. The scholar Angela Davis calls her "the first real 'superstar' in African-American popular culture."

The explosive popularity of classic blues discs was a democratic revolution. As Marybeth Hamilton writes in her excellent book In Search of the Blues: Black Voices, White Visions, "Once only encountered at house parties and barn dances, on street corners and the black showbiz circuit, the blues could now be heard pouring out of speakeasies, nightclubs, houses, apartments, drug stores and barbershops, hardware stores and funeral parlours, anywhere race records were played or sold."

'It just went down'

But many scholars of African-American culture, black and white alike, were horrified by the rise of the Victrola record player and the music it played. In their eyes, the mechanical reproduction of the blues symbolised the spiritual corruption of black people by cities, factories and commerce – in short, the modern age. For the writer Zora Neale Hurston, “His Negroness is being rubbed off by close contact with white culture."

These scholars and folklorists saw the "real" blues, by contrast, as a vanishing oral tradition from the rural South that needed to be captured and preserved before it disappeared completely. "The songs may live," wrote one critic in 1926, "but the best thing of all, the free impulse, the pattern of careless voices happily inventing as they go, if it dies it cannot be resurrected." Whereas the likes of Ma Rainey travelled to the city to record their music, song collectors moved in the opposite direction, taking their recording devices to the South in order to capture what the leading folklorist John Lomax called "sound-photographs of Negro songs, rendered in their own native element".


Some scholars and folklorists like Zora Neale Hurston saw these popular recordings as a spiritual corruption of the blues (Credit: Getty Images)

This preservationist instinct may have been valid but the assumptions that underpinned it were often paternalistic and segregationist: derived from the singing of slaves, the oral blues was the product of naive, untutored imaginations that would wither on contact with modernity, so they had to be protected, like rare orchids. While black people who migrated from the Jim Crow South were looking for a better future, the folklorists sentimentally fetishised the agony and mystery of the past they had left behind. This problematic assumption has since resurfaced in writing about soul music and hip hop: the sound of suffering is considered more powerful and real than the sound of defiant enjoyment; pain is more authentic than pleasure.

This obsession with the "genuine" black experience proved fatal for the classic blues. In 1926, Blind Lemon Jefferson became the first solo singer-guitarist to have a hit record (Paramount's advertisement promised "a real, old-fashioned blues, by a real, old-fashioned blues singer") and he set a new fashion for earthier "country blues," followed by Blind Blake, Big Bill Broonzy, Lonnie Johnson and Furry Lewis. With no need for backing bands or stage costumes, the men were much cheaper, too. As Jackie Kay puts it in her biography, "These old bluesmen are considered the genuine article while the women are fancy dress." At the same time, the classic blues singers were too working-class and sexually frank for some of the urban middle classes. Black Swan, the first black-owned record label, rejected Bessie Smith for being too vulgar, while a leading black newspaper, the Chicago Defender, complained that these "filth furnishers" and "purveyors of putrid puns" were "a hindrance to our standard of respectability and success".

The classic blues singers were already in decline when the Great Depression finished them off. By 1933, record sales were just 7% of what they had been in 1929 and many of the theatres had closed or been turned into movie theatres. Urban listeners, meanwhile, were abandoning blues for the faster, more sophisticated sound of swing, represented in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom by Chadwick Boseman's young, impatient Levee. They didn't need that bridge to the South anymore. According to Thomas Dorsey, the gospel blues pioneer who used to play in Rainey's band, "It collapsed… I don’t know what happened to the blues, they seemed to drop it all at once, it just went down."

Erasing women's voices

As a new generation of black female singers broke through in the 1930s – Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Memphis Minnie – some of the first wave sought refuge in other branches of showbusiness. Victoria Spivey appeared in King Vidor's 1929 movie Hallelujah, one of the first studio pictures to feature an entirely black cast. Ethel Waters became, at one point, the highest-paid actress on Broadway. Only a handful were still making blues records in the 1930s. Mamie Smith retired in 1931. Rainey was dropped by Paramount in 1928 and returned to the Southern tent circuit, her stolen gold necklace replaced by imitation pearls. Bessie Smith recorded one last session in 1933, for one-sixth of the fee she used to command, before she died after a car crash in 1937.


Some classic blues singers sought refuge in acting – Ethel Waters, pictured in 1943's Cabin in the Sky, was at one time the highest paid actress on Broadway (Credit: Getty Images)

As if their enforced retirement weren't bad enough, these women suffered the double indignity of being retrospectively sidelined. The "Blues Mafia" clique of record collectors (all white, all men) who established the blues canon after World War Two scorned the 1920s hits as commercial junk and sought out the obsolete flops that nobody else cared about. They sincerely loved this music but its unpopularity certainly enhanced its mystique, as did the murky sound that came from recording it on cheap equipment and pressing it on cheap plastic. It sounded like music from the margins, unloved and misunderstood. As the leading collector James McKune wrote, it was "archaic in the best sense… gnarled, rough-hewn and eminently uncommercial." Delta blues singers such as Charley Patton, Skip James, Son House and Robert Johnson slotted into the post-war counterculture's worship of untameable outcasts who lived tough, rootless lives a million miles away from bourgeois conformity. Like the man WC Handy spotted at Tutwiler station, their alienation guaranteed their authenticity.

Ironically, the records that the Blues Mafia dedicated themselves to rescuing from obscurity have become far more famous than the smash hits of the 1920s. Male country blues resonated with rock's singer-songwriters in a way that the classic blues never could. While a few women, notably Victoria Spivey and Edith Wilson, lived long enough to return to the stage during the 1960s blues revival, the likes of Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones were far more interested in the hardbitten men of the Delta. "It is surely no accident that so many of the early blues performers that revivalists scorned as inauthentic were women; to them, authenticity had a male voice," writes Hamilton.


The early blues women were sidelined by the "Blues Mafia" who championed Delta blues singers such as Robert Johnson, Skip James and Son House [pictured] (Credit: Getty Images)

For all its obsession with the "real", the 1960s blues revival was built on a series of myths. It portrayed the Mississippi Delta as a land lost in time, closer in spirit to the slavery era than to modern America. It elevated flops while ignoring the music that black consumers had actually enjoyed. It imagined the performers as men who sang their pain without concern for attention or financial reward, even though, in reality, they would very much have liked both. Blues enthusiasts often spoke of these men as if they were revenants or creatures from folklore rather than real people, hence the old myth that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. The qualities represented by the classic female blues singers – resilience, solidarity, community, fun – could not compete. As George Melly, one of the few critics to take the classic blues seriously in the 1960s, wrote, "there is a proportion of the worthless, the mechanical, the contrived, but there is also a gaiety, a vitality, a sense of good time."

Every form of historical revisionism has its winners and losers. In rejecting the blues' relationship to big-city showbusiness, the conventional narrative all but erased women's voices and experiences. Jackie Kay's book and George C Wolfe's film are important reminders of the period when the blues was mass-market party music and its reigning stars were women, proud and majestic in feathers and gold.

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This post originally appeared on BBC Culture and was published February 16, 2021. This article is republished here with permission.

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