Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Angela Y. Davis: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday Redux

Already with her in spirit despite differences in gender and race, I learned a lot from Angela Y. Davis' Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (Vintage, 1999, Random House, 1998). Building as it does on Daphne Duval Harrison's Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s (Rutgers, 1988), this work has deepened and broadened my perspective, certainly. In addition to rendering a compelling analytical study of the three major recording artists enumerated in the subtitle (who were also very popular live performers, all with enduring impact) -- and with due consideration and attention given to race, gender and class -- Davis also provides her own very helpful transcriptions of the lyrics of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.

Davis' introduction concludes:

"Finally, I hope this study will inspire readers to listen to the recordings of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday both for pleasure and for purposes of research, and that it will occasion further interdisciplinary studies of the artistic and social contributions of blues and jazz women." (p. xx).

Toward these goals, I've been working on two St. Louis and Chicago-based blues singers of the 1920s and 1930s, Luella Miller and Mary Johnson, mostly listening to their recordings and transcribing their lyrics as sung. Some of the initial results have been posted on this blog. The work of Davis, Harrison and others gives these kinds of studies impetus, direction and added relevance.  

Today's Rune: Wholeness.  

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