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Est. April 5, 2002
Mar 18, 2021 - Issue 857
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Like most forms of popular music, African-American blues lyrics talk about love.

Angela Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday

Love of Black people, love of freedom from domestic terrorism.

I have absolutely no musical talent whatsoever. I sat for piano lessons when I was a preteen. I would go to the home of this older Black woman on the Southside of Chicago, not far from my home. I did learn that every good boy does fine always (EGBDF), but I wouldn’t be able to point to an E or G on the piano. Or for that matter, any musical instrument. I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between an E or a G.

As a listener, I’ve long appreciated the power of music, however.

In my grandparents’ home, I was exposed to almost all genres of music, except the blues. I listened to 78 rpm recordings of Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathias, Tony Bennett, Harry Belafonte, and Nate King Cole. Of course, Cole was also on television as were Andy Williams and Judy Garland. Aside from my Beatles LP, I had LPs of Jimmy Hendrix, Odetta, and Leonard Bernstein’s recording of Bolero.

Then when my mother re-married my father, a Baptist, I was eleven years old, and I listened to the Mighty Clouds of Joy, the Soul Stirrers, and The Five Blind Boys. All day on Sundays, my very Catholic grandmother listened to a Black radio station featuring some of the most influential Black churches with their choirs and pastors, mostly all male. A cacophony of patriarchal outpouring on those Sundays.

All this music and yet no one mentioned Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, or Billie Holiday. No one played or sang the blues. But it didn’t matter. The blues was always there when another “perhaps-you-forgot-to-pay-your-bill-notice” was opened, read, and I hear the laugh. Someone, grandfather or mother, would always laugh. The blues wrapped around Christmas little Christmas trinkets from the basement at Goldblatt’s Department store. The blues hovered around when my grandparents sat in the window during the evenings, staring out. Behind them, at the kitchen table, I sat eating white slices of bread covered in sugar.

No one sang it! Didn’t have to!

That Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (1998) by historian and activist Angela Y. Davis would be overlooked by the academic world as well as by music critics is understandable in a country where Blacks, in the 21st Century, must remind its citizens that Black lives matter, too. And her subject matter: Ladies singing the blues! In a country where that movement for social justice and the fulfillment of democracy is denounced as not suitable as a valuable subject for study. Anti-Black sentiment discredits anything produced by Black people that represents a fundamental cry from the belly of this country’s practice of white supremacist violence.

And yet the blues is complex and has often been misunderstood while, too, all-pervasive in our culture. Some would argue that the blues represents the state of our culture today in light of the January 6, 2021 Insurrection at the Capitol in Washington D. C.

The blues,” writes Davis, “rose to become the most prominent secular genre in early twentieth-century black American music.” And yet, it was often characterized as “the Devil’s music” in opposition to the spirituals or later gospel, that is, “God’s music.” I’m reminded of those scenes in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple when the women characters, divided between those who sing the blues such as Shug Avery, and those who sing in the nearby community church are far from a collective of abused victims of violence. To make matters worse and appear more opaque, often male ministers, as Davis notes, saw themselves pitted in battle for the souls of the community against Black women, like a Rainey and Smith, singers about sexual love but also about patriarchal violence.

Celie observes Shug reaching for another cigarette…

Start hum a little tune.”

What that song? I ast. Sound low and down dirty to me. Like what the preacher tell you it's sin to hear. Not to mention sing.”

She hum a little more. Something come to me, she say. Something I made up. Something you help scratch out my head.”

In particular, these women sang about freedom from “domestic violence.” And by “domestic violence,” they meant violence committed against them by the male at home as well as the collective of male supremacy in American society.

The blues women were often, as a result of their opposition to violence, free of “domestic orthodoxy,” as they were almost never wives, Davis argues, or mothers. “The women who sang the blues did not typically affirm female resignation and powerlessness, nor did they accept the relegation of women to private and interior spaces.” Instead, Davis continues, blues women “found ways to express themselves that were at variance with the prevailing standards of femininity.”

Blues, for these women, was a way to speak on “violence against women” at home and in the US. The long-time cover-up of “private” violence, that is, unofficial state-sanctioned violence against women at home, as in, women could expect to be hit or slapped, begins to come under scrutiny, Davis writes. For, as far as these blues women were concerned, this “cover-up would no longer be tolerated.” The blues women name that violence, call it out! “The feminists’ defiant notion that “the personal is political,” becomes a mantra, like that of today’s “Black lives matter”! Forms of resistance to private and public domestic violence are also called on to inform the listener.

In turn, “blues music performs a magical-or aesthetic-exorcism of the blues, those things that lead to unhappiness and despair.”

Davis points out that the blues of a Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith “may be interpreted precisely as historical preparation for political protests.” More than a “complaint” against domestic violence and a call to resistance and the pursuit of freedom, their songs, writes Davis, “begin to articulate a consciousness that takes into account social conditions of class exploitation, racism, and male dominance as seen through the lenses of the complex emotional responses of black female subjects.”

White supremacy didn’t just show up in the expression of male power at the Capitol on January 6, 2021. As I see it, two months later with the threat of even more domestic violence, its notorious feature is that it, too, like the blues, is pervasive in American culture. It’s been the blues, all along, challenging the notion of white supremacy.

Abel Meeropol, a Jewish American, adopts the two children, Robert and Michael Rosenberg, children of the executed “spies”, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. This is 1953. Earlier, in 1937, Meeropol wrote an anti-lynching poem “Bitter Fruit,” published in The Masses.

Billie Holiday sang the song, now called “Strange Fruit.”

In the 1940s, while Judy Garland sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” Billie Holiday is establishing “Strange Fruit,” as the central song in her repertoire.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit

Blood on the leaves, blood at the root

Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Though no stage blues singer, Ida B. Wells’ campaign against lynching protests as loudly as possible, pointing to hanging bodies of Black people in a country sworn to pursue democratic ideas. Lynching, she wrote in Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, was a means for white America “to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized and ‘keep the nigger down.’”

Today, we are witnessing an interest in the ladies who sang the blues. During the COVID-19 pandemic and after a year in which the world witnessed the murders of so many Black men and women by callus police and good ole’ boy vigilantes, Viola Davis brings Ma Rainey, in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom to life as Andra Day seems to inhabit the spirit of Billie Holiday in The United States vs. Billie Holiday. I’d like to think that maybe there is an interest in combating the continuing threat of white supremacy in American culture.

Maybe the blues should, once again, become our banner, our sword. Our path to a freedom contingent on a love of justice and compassion.

Black people, writes Davis, “fiercely” challenged “the cultural oppression implied” in “the spoken English language.” It was no different with Billie Holiday, writes Davis, who “did the same with the words and concepts of the songs imposed upon her, insinuating that battle into every musical phrase and making that battle the lyrical and dramatic core of her performances.”

Holiday was truly singing of her love for Black people, of her understanding of Black suffering in the US. Of resistance to domestic violence and abuse. In the music, Davis concurs, “her phrasing, her timing, the timbre of her voice, the social roots of pain and despair in women’s emotional lives are given a lyrical legibility” with Holiday at the mic. Meeropol’s song became what Holiday called her “personal protest” against racism; for “‘Strange Fruit’ evoked, Davis notes, the horrors of lynching at a time when black people were still passionately calling for allies in the campaign to eradicate this murderous and terroristic manifestation of racism.”

When Holiday placed the song at the center of her repertoire, she meant for America to take note of her protest, and of the Black musical traditions’ role in protesting injustice. Blacks were often subjected to violence in their homes and communities while awaiting government intervention in the form of Constitutional amendments. The song, Davis notes, “bore witness” to Black people having no safe place, except in the blues, where they could object and offer protest - even during an era of lynching when the injustice seems relentless.

In Florida, 1934, the mob had fingers and toes, parts of what was once Claude Neal. He was “freely exhibited on the street corners…” He has been tortured, forced to consume his own penis and then his testicles. He endured the slicing of his sides and stomach, and the burning of his flesh with red hot irons, until, hours later, the mob decided just to kill him. Davis further records how “Neal’s body was tied to a rope on the rear of an automobile and dragged over the highway to the Connidy home. Here, a mob estimated to number somewhere between 3,000 and 7,000 people from eleven southern states, was excitedly awaiting his arrival.”

Neal was finally hanged from a tress “on the northeast corner of the courthouse square.”

Here is a strange and bitter crop,” the Lady sang!

Here is home-grown American domestic violence! Editorial Board member and Columnist, Dr. Lenore Jean Daniels, PhD, has a Doctorate in Modern American Literature/Cultural Theory. Contact Dr. Daniels and BC.

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