Sign up for our free newsletter
It is in the deepest, bleakest of territories, two miles beneath the underdog, that the blues finds its origins. And if you’ve ever been lucky enough to find yourself at the feet of those gnarled-knuckled guitar professors, the ancient Delta bluesicians, you already know that the blues is the oldest religion known to man. Negro existentialism. The astute among us remember that 25 years ago Albert Murray’s Stomping the Blues presented us with a new version of heroism, one in which survival, or the mere attempt to survive in the face of a deck brutally stacked against you, qualified as epic, transcendent. For Murray, the heroes of American history were those Southern, earth-colored tricksters who had mastered the art of beating the odds and immortalized themselves in blues refrains.
Angela Davis, herself a product of Alabama soil, knows this terrain well. So well, in fact, that she recognizes that something is amiss: The women have been left out. In an effort to set the record straight, she has produced Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, an extensive analysis of the lyrical lessons offered by Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday.
The blues, as Davis points out, first gained commercial success as a female art form. Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues,” recorded in 1920, sold a massive 75,000 copies in its first month. Artists like Ida Cox, Alberta Hunter, and Ethel Waters followed suit. Only after several years of “race records” did the genre come to be dominated by male voices like those of Robert Johnson and his aesthetic progeny.
Not only were these early blues women heroes, they were wise to the ways in which sexuality and anatomy placed them on the outskirts of society. They were, in a word, feminists. By grounding black feminism in the ancestral voice of the blues, Davis is trying to slay the misconceptionboth within and outside of black communitiesthat feminism is a “white woman’s concept.” This is not simply a matter of academic concern for her, given that her feminist critique of the Million Man March nearly had her brought up on charges of race treason. In matters of race and gender, black women have been and still are expected to side with the former at the expense of the latter.
To cut to the quick, Davis asserts that the feminine has been overlooked in our definitions of the heroic. There is, as always, more than simple history at stake. Early on, she points out that the brutal ubiquity of racism in American history has led blacks to a perspective that is “over-determined by race,” meaning that they automatically see the influence of race upon their daily lives but often overlook the dynamics of gender, class, and age.
And if we are concerned simply with whether Angela Davis can win an argument, we’re asking the wrong questions. For the record, she brings to bear an overwhelming array of informationmuch of it transcribed for the first time by herto establish the fact that these blues women were incisively critical of male dominance in both song and life. The entire second half of the book is a transcription of blues lyrics. Her analysis of the blues-woman perspective on the black church is compelling and insightful. The question is, however, whom she is attempting to convince.
In the upper stratosphere of academia and in the precincts of the Negro middle class, the idea of a “gendered” consciousness has gained currency in the past two decades. There is a consistent, if toothless, version of black feminism shot through black magazines like Essence, and “womanist” writers like bell hooks and Alice Walker enjoy publication by the major presses. Blues Legacies is therefore, on some levels, an eloquent sermon directed at the academic choir. This book will reach an audience that already knows the significance of the work of black feminists.
Blues Legacies is marred in places by painfully academic phrasing. Davis writes: “In nationalist expressions of black middle-classand later working-classcultural consciousness, the historical memory of slavery, the most painful institutionalized oppression of African-American history, frequently has been conflated with an ideologically distorted notion of black matriarchy.” There is an irony in these jargonistic lapses, considering the fact that the blues is founded on profound simplicity. And it is, in fact, the inability of such progressive voices as Davis’ to reach grass-roots ears that has allowed demagogic figures like Louis Farrakhan to capture center stage.
Davis finds her mark more often than not in the interpretation of the lyrical. In a chapter titled “Blame It on the Blues” she ferrets out an implicit protest theme within the work of Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. As she writes, “Given its place within the African-American music tradition, the blues absorbed techniques from the music of slavery, in which protest was secretly expressed and understood only by those who held the key to the code.” And although “Strange Fruit,” her 1939 overt protest of lynching, was highly atypical for Lady Day, who for most of her career was forced to brilliantly animate vapid tunes, Davis asserts that the very way in which Holiday sang was subversive. The mere attempt at survival is an act of subversion, and the blues functions, above all else, as a survivor’s music. There is scarcely a realm of female existence that is not touched upon by these blues women and consequently by Davis’ powers of observation.
But Davis is not immune to the tenuous argument. Seeking to sanitize the soul-eroding melancholy of “My Man,” in which Holiday moans, “He isn’t true, he beats me too,” Davis asserts, “an ironic edge in Holiday’s voice warns against a facile, literal interpretation….[T]he slow tempo with which she sings the words…emphasizes an ambivalent posture rather than acquiescence to the violence described.” Yeah, right.
But such rose-colored analysis is the exception. And although there is a dearth of biographical material to complement their artistic expressions, Davis has unearthed some very important ideas about these epic heroines. In spite of this book’s flaws, Davis has to be credited with treading new paths deep into blues territory. CP