Written by Claire Snook
Ahhhh, the blues. There’s something about this music that has captured the imagination and interest of millions of people across the world and decades. The idea of a lone man with his guitar, hobo-ing around the Mississippi Delta or playing in the dark clubs of Chicago and New York, trying to make ends meet with their music is an established one that runs deep in modern culture.
That image was hugely reinforced with the rediscovery of blues in the sixties, with encouragement from promoters to appeal to a new audience, and it worked. The careers of many bluesmen were relaunched and they got to travel the world, playing the music they’d written and sung twenty or thirty or even forty years earlier.
Obviously great to see these musicians finally recognised!
But what about the women?
In The Beginning
Women dominated the early blues scene for years, and were incredibly popular with their audiences.
Ma Rainey allegedly discovered the blues in 1902 — a year before W.C Handy’s meeting at the train station with the unknown bluesman 1903 — when a young girl about 12 years old sang for her. Ma Rainey immediately made blues songs part of her act and toured the US taking the blues to new audiences through being part of the Rabbit Foot Minstrels.
Mamie Smith was possibly the first African American vocalist to record the blues with Crazy Blues in 1920, which sold so well that record companies recorded blues performers in droves. More than 200 women singers of blues were recorded between 1920 and 30; people wanted to hear women singing the blues.
Bessie Smith sold more than eight million records in her career, a huge number for an African American singing in a niche genre, and she was the bestselling female artist of the twenties and third artist overall. The second bestselling female artist of the decade was Marion Harris, a white woman who started recording blues songs in 1916.
There were powerhouse singers and songwriters active in the twenties and thirties, producing some of the most popular and covered songs in blues music: Ethel Waters (Stormy Weather), Alberta Hunter who wrote Downhearted Blues which was sung by pretty much everyone, Memphis Minnie (When the Levee Breaks), Ida Goodson, Ida Cox (Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues), Sippie Wallace (Shorty George), and Ruth Brown.
These women were creating exciting blues music that their audiences loved to listen to and sold in millions.
The blues songs they sang were usually backed by bands – horns, drums, piano – and less so by guitar. Sara Martin was the first recorded blues artist to sing with only a guitar as backing on Longing for Daddy Blues, provided by Sylvester Weaver in 1923.
Many of the women were part of vaudeville, minstrel or medicine shows, and blues songs would be just one of the genres they sang to entertain their audiences. The same went for bluesmen, they sang whatever their audiences paid them to perform. Blues wasn’t an art form but another way to earn some cash.
[ Related reading: Vaudeville Blues: The Classic Female Singers ]
When Crazy Blues took off, records companies had no real idea of next steps as there was no precedent, so they just went ahead and recorded lots of blueswomen. This means we can get a sense of what was currently popular with African American audiences before the blues became curated too much by record companies — very exciting!
Record companies worked hard to get their audiences interested in buying bluesmen records. Blind Papa Jackson (the first self-accompanied blues musician to make records) was advertised in the Chicago Defender in 1927 as a blues singer that could sing as well as a woman. The breakthrough for male singers was Blind Lemon Jefferson, who had a high-pitched voice and excellent guitar skills, and scored success in 1926 with a couple of hits.
This was good news for the record companies as it’s much cheaper to record and pay royalties to one person with a guitar than a band with a singer, meaning more money for them.
Current tastes may not enjoy early blueswomen’s music because so much of it comes with a band backing, more in keeping with the previous minstrel, ragtime and Tin Pan Alley music than what we expect blues to sound like now thanks to the sixties’ revival. And the older recordings are poor due to age.
But it’s time to celebrate women and their music – they made blues music popular and sparked a musical craze that is still part of culture today.
Many thanks to the author Claire Snook.