The Blues – Behind the Myth
On the vaudeville stages in the South of the USA, black female vocalists sang the blues to full houses with great success, at the beginning of the 20thcentury. Names such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith stand out as quite extraordinary. They were great artists and entertainers, and their contribution to the creation, development, and production of blues cannot be underrated. How, then, was it decided that the ideal blues vocalist was a man, and the ideal blues instrument the guitar?
The enormous popularity of the female blues artists in the USA of the 1920’s – when blues via record releases was made available to black Americans in every corner of the US – was actually only the top of a development which started far earlier on the emerging black vaudeville stages in the South.
Blues emerges as a new and different song form in the southern USA around 1900, and already from 1902, 16-year-old Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey went on tour in tent shows and on the vaudeville stages in the South with this new tripartite form of music as show stopper.
Little attention has been given to the artists and the musical field connected with the black vaudeville stages, but within this context blues becomes a growing and controversial element, which takes the shape of a cultural, social, and musical movement.
The female blues vocalists are at the very front of this movement, and as blues pioneers they come to appear as cultural standard bearers of black self-perception, especially to many from the black working class.
With humour and bite these female blues singers sing about life’s conditions in an unsentimental, direct language. Man/woman themes are often on the agenda, and these women have no fear of challenging the existing order of things:
I got the world in a jug, the stopper’s in my hand
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
In the black working class the female blues singers are uncrowned queens, and people flock to their concerts to hear them ‘telling it like it is’.
The narrative of blues as we know it, however, does not belong to the female blues artists. In the known version the blues tradition has been recreated in ‘the white man’s image’. Here, both black popular music and female blues singers are discarded, and the blues tradition is instead depicted as a folk musical phenomenon, where a pantheon of male, rural blues singers dominate the picture in a landscape almost devoid of women for miles around.
“The Lonely Rider” – variations over a theme
If I asked you to explain something about blues to me, and from where it originates, in your mind their might pop up images of old, weather-beaten, black men, men with a guitar in their arms, sitting in front of ramshackle huts built on the bare ground somewhere in the country in a southern state in the USA, maybe Mississippi.
These images – evoked in your inner mind – are, however, created of the stuff that dreams are made of, and are an object lesson in how black culture through the times has been used and abused as a source of inspiration for white self images.
The traditional narrative of the blues is rather a folklore story of, and a romantic homage to, ‘the lonely rider’, the lonely, ostrasized wanderer exposed as a black blues hero – more than it is a representation of real life blues culture, which, with its origin in modern popular music, arose at the beginning of the 20th century.
Central to the story of the blues is the story of The Delta Blues and names like Robert Johnson and Charley Patton – coarse, tortured voices, vagrant men who do business with the Devil at the crossroads around midnight. This blues narrative may be traced back to the 1960’s so-called ‘blues revival’.
The Myth of ‘The Delta Blues’
As documented in Marybeth Hamilton’s book In Search of the Blues (2007), with a wish to define the ‘authentic’ blues a group of white men created the idea of something called ‘The Delta Blues’. They convinced a lot of people that they were ‘deeper’ and ‘wiser’ than others, and that if you did not agree, you were either a superficial, if not bad, person.
But the icon of the blues vocalist as a black, guitar playing man from the countryside, and the cementation of the idea of blues as a kind of folk music originating in Mississippi is a historical construction which takes its starting point in the middle of 20th century USA.
In a rented room at the YMCA in Brooklyn sits the originator of the idea of something called ‘The Delta Blues’. James McKune is an eccentric and enthusiastic record collector – just one in the line of white song hunters, who from around the turn of the century and onwards had dedicatedly been searching for black music. Not contemporary black music, but music from back in a mythological past where “people were simpler and their expression more genuine”.
McKune’s colleagues’ interest in early jazz – Dixieland – leaves him cold. In Salvation Army’s boxes with old, second-hand single records, and in other second-hand record shops, he goes hunting for what no one else has an eye for, and when in 1944 he comes across the record, ‘Some These Days I’ll Be Gone’, with the Mississippi musician Charley Patton, he is in luck. Here is what he has been searching for: ‘The Black Voice’ as it is supposed to sound in all its “authentic originality”.
Black Voices – White Visions
James McKune becomes the uniting, a little older, mentor figure for a group of younger, white record collectors, who name themselves ‘The New York Blues Mafia’. The key to the sixties’ blues revival is to be seen in the light of the activities that this group created, a group which, from the middle of the 40’s, gathered around Indian Joe’s second-hand record shop in Manhattan.
The Blues Mafia combs the market in search of unique blues records and meet during weekends, often at McKune’s, whose exclusive collection of 300 records – hidden under the bed in his room at the Y.M.C.A. – creates respect and comes to set a standard for the aesthetics which carries forward the blues revival.
Authenticity is the code word, and for the Blues Mafia and other blues fans this concept in practice becomes a different way of separating the sheep from the goats. Among the non-qualified types of music is the majority of black popular music, especially the works of female artists.
The idea of something called The Delta Blues, and the fiction saying that the characteristic sound of an exclusive group of a chosen few musicians from Mississippi is the real, non-corrupt, original blues music, become the basic ingredients in the blues revival concept. Blues is marketed as folk music, and a group of blues singers who – with no remarkable attention among black people – mainly recorded their songs during the 30’s, are elevated to the status of ‘blues heroes’.
The female artists whom the black community connected with blues – and who first gave blues the great popular breakthrough via the record industry in the 20’s – are marginalized, and are either ignored or accused of compromising ‘the real deal’ with their commercial popular music.
A Romance with a Male Imprint
The sixties’ blues revival, and the wish to narrow down the definition of the genuine, authentic blues from which the blues revival arose, has created a misconception of the history of the blues. A misconception which in the subsequent history of the blues is elevated to the status of ‘truth’, and creating a precedent for the view that there is a straight male line of development in blues/rock history to this group of male, rural blues singers in Mississippi.
The folk music aura which is created around the blues does not exist in the early years, and the unpleasant fact is that the singers, whom the historians usually credit with expressing the fundamental truths of the blues, had little support among black Americans. Even in the heart of Mississippi the so-called ‘country-blues’ musician has little popularity.
The emergence of the myth is the culmination of years of white fascination with the mysteries of black music, and the blues revivalists’ hunt for authenticity ostensibly mirrors both a search for the sources of life and a sensitivity towards the emotional. This search is channeled into the blues, and during this process the tradition is recreated. Robert Johnson – the unrivalled blues icon – comes to appear as the embodiment of this blues romance, the primal voice of black suffering.
Blues Rhetoric in the 21st Century.
Within blues rhetoric and journalism there is still today a preoccupation with ‘authenticity’, and there is a strict code regarding what may be considered as authentic. But pleading authenticity is inevitably political, and invariably has the effect that certain forms of expression are claimed to be more ‘genuine’ than others.
In the article ‘Black Women Guitarists and Authenticity in Blues’ (2007), Maria V. Johnson points out that the traditional blues canon – predominantly created by white, male blues writers – favour downhome blues singing, i.e. country blues, instead of vaudeville blues singing. Downhome blues is appreciated and considered as authentic whereas vaudeville blues is not. These different styles are seen as each other’s opposites, and any mixture of the two is considered as an offence, Johnson points out.
This order of precedence is not just limited to musical styles, but is apparently also about who may rightly demand the title of ‘blues singer’. Robert Johnson according to ‘Gad’s Music Encyclopedia’, is a ‘blues singer and guitarist’ – without further distinctions. That he also played and sang other material than blues, for example Tin Pan Alley tunes, when he performed, does not deprive him of his status as a blues singer.
On the other hand, Ma Rainey – who was known and loved by black Americans at the beginning of the 20th century exactly because of her way of singing the blues – according to the same encyclopedia, is ‘not a typical blues singer, but an entertainer who, with equal shares of pathos and humour, sang jazz and vaudeville’.
Within black performance tradition, however, the ‘blues singer’ and the ‘entertainer’ are not two incompatible concepts. On the contrary, they are rather each other’s prerequisite, and are often personified in one and the same artist. Ma Rainey, who was a prominent exponent of black performance tradition, was one of the earliest co-creators in the development of the ‘style’ of how to perform the blues on the vaudeville stages in the South.
‘Got the world in a jug…’
The black Chicago blues singer, Koko Taylor (1928-2009), has a view of the female blues singers which is far from the prevailing attitude. She – who has been showered with awards for her blues singing – expresses her recognition of these singers in the following manner: “What these women did – like Ma Rainey – they was the foundation of the blues. They brought the blues up from slavery up to today”.
Although the women in blues – by researchers rooted in the blues revival – have been viewed as marginal in the production of blues, these women were in practice promoters of the blues tradition which, firmly rooted in African inspired aesthetics and philosophy, took shape during the first decades of the 20th century.
Angela Y. Davies further estimates that Ma Rainey’s and Bessie Smith’s (and for that matter, Billie Holiday’s) contribution to the African-American music scene represent an unperceived tradition of feminist self-assurance in the black working class community.
The myth that the blues originated in the Mississippi delta has resulted in a distortion of the understanding of black music culture in general and of the female blues singers’ contribution to this culture in particular. Starting from the previous century’s ideological discussion about what is good and bad music – and from the schism between the concepts of popular music/folk music – a white vision of the blues was constructed, a vision that is still very much alive and kicking up until today. This vision, however, reveals a blindness towards black culture, a patronization of black voices, and implicitly a discrimination of female blues artists.