Going deep into the origins of blues and jazz is a bit of headfuck. There’s a lot, A LOT, of information out there about the histories, but so much of it seems to be the same stories told over and over again, about how Charley Patton was the main man, the men he taught, then the men they taught, the men who found and recorded them, etc. In one reference book seen to be the book to read for blues knowledge, women’s contributions are limited to half a page out of nearly 300 pages (ask me if interested and I’ll share the book with you). They aren’t seen as delivering any contribution to the music, or have contribution deemed to be worthy of acknowledge. It’s absolutely crazy. Women dominated the early blues scene for YEARS, and yet they can be reduced to half a page in the history books. Following Mamie Smith’s ‘Crazy Blues‘ recording in 1920, more than 200 female artists recorded in the next ten years yet many of them have just disappeared in obscurity. For example, Ida Cox was one of the most popular artists in the twenties and thirties, just as popular as Ma Rainey and more popular than most of her male contemporaries. Bessie Smith was the top selling female artist of the twenties, and the THIRD ARTIST OVERALL, incredible considering she was black and singing in a niche genre. The second best selling female artist of the twenties was Marion Harris, a white woman who sang the blues and had been recording since 1916. And yet we regulate these successful women to notes in the back of text books because they don’t fit the idea of what blues should be, ie, a singular man with a guitar. Sara Martin was the first recorded blues artist to sing with only a guitar as backing on _Longing for Daddy Blues_, guitar skills provided by Sylvester Weaver, in 1923.
These women were creating exciting blues music that their audiences loved to listen to and sold in millions.
I’m really quite sad that they’ve been regulated to half pages in books or token nods with a podcast special.
I think a lot of this is due to the romantic idea attached the male blues artists of the thirties, the wandering male hobo who usually lived hand-to-mouth, played music where they could, but suffered for their art. The part about white men who owned the record labels and determined who was going to record, how long the song was going to be, what the song was about, sometimes but not always wrote the music, has been ignored in favour of this ideal. It also happened with female artists, but it’s easier to ignore this as we generally don’t hear that much about them anyway.
This is turning into a bit of a rant but I’ve read quite a lot of books on blues and jazz in the last four months and this trend is common.
Pretty much every book on blues talks about field hollers (used by men and women) and chain gangs (men), I’ve found one book that talks about rubbing songs – women’s music sang while washing clothes using a washboard – and heard from a famous woman artist about the tradition of sister singing, particularly in churches. This hasn’t come up anywhere else as yet.
And while we’ve all heard about the Lomaxes, how many people have heard of Ruby Pickens Tartt, Dorothy Scarborough and Natalie Curtis Burlin? All of these women were collectors of African American folk music to different degrees, and it was with Tartt’s help that the Lomaxes managed to collect quite a bit of their music. And yet the extent of her help by John Lomax was an acknowledge that she exists and was a white woman quite fond of African Americans.
I think early women’s blues music is more complex as a lot of it had stronger roots with vaudeville or ragtime/minstrel, the earlier music crazes of late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. It has more instruments than we’re used to hearing in blues – pianos, horns, drums – and there isn’t always a guitar. That came later and dominated the scene (see my earlier post about instruments used).
I’m still researching and learning and learning, but I’m finding gaps in our knowledge about women in blues – the women who played the music and the ones who sought to record and detail it. I’ll keep going and share with you more information as I find it. Hopefully a bit more regularly!