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Nothing But the Blues: Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith is seen here as a young woman at the outset of her career. Image from Nothing But the Blues.

“The story of the blues is inseparable from the story of the phonograph record,” Richard K. Spottswood writes in his chapter women and the blues, from Abbeville’s captivating survey of blues music and blues musicians, Nothing But the Blues. The phonograph meant that music became accessible to new audiences, and thanks to Columbia Records’ contract with Western Electric to license new recording techniques starting in 1925, the recordings we have of singers such as Bessie Smith capture far more accurately her deep, earthy, commanding voice.

Mamie Smith held the distinction of recording what is officially known as the first blues recording in 1920, of her “Crazy Blues,” and soon after many more women followed suit—the decade that followed proved extraordinary in the history of women’s voices in the blues. One seemingly impossible story from those years is the legend that Bessie Smith was turned down after auditioning with several recording companies, perhaps because her powerful, sensual voice could have overpowered any instrumentation. Still, how Thomas Edison (the same Edison who invented the phonograph) could have written in young Bessie Smith’s talent file that her voice was “no good” is almost beyond belief. In 1923, Frank Walker heard her sing and recognized immediately her talent, and she signed a contract with Columbia Records.

Bessie Smith and other blueswomen of her generation wrote and sang bravely about hard times and difficult—and often taboo—subjects. Through the candor and the passion of their expression, they have now reached audiences worldwide, and their recordings continue to move listeners and to bring people together. In his information chapter, contributing author of Nothing But the Blues, David Evans discusses the trailblazing importance of these women:

Their songs combined elements of the cabaret-vaudeville style with the toughness of country blues, as they sang in an unaffected manner of violence, cheating men, the drudgery of their workaday lives, lovemaking, nightmare images, escape, and a whole host of other subjects. Many of their recordings displayed songwriting skills of a high order that deserve greater recognition and exposure.

 

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Click here for more information on Nothing But the Blues, published by Abbeville Press.

Gospel Voices of Hope: Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson

Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Image from Nothing But the Blues.

Today is International Women’s Day, and to honor and celebrate the occasion, for our final installation of our week looking at women in the blues, we’re focusing on two iconic women, renowned for the strength of their spirits and beliefs, and for their astounding music. “There’s something about the gospel blues,” Sister Rosetta Tharpe expressed, “that’s so deep the world can’t stand it.” We understand what she meant, though of course we certainly can stand Tharpe’s swinging spirituals, her rhythm and her unforgettably passionate voice. Tharpe was one of the first stars to bring gospel to a national audience, and she was stunning the crowds in the late 1930s with her “holy roller” sound.

Tharpe’s contemporary Mahalia Jackson, who started recording in 1937, had a fairly limited (but very devoted) audience until she was discovered by jazz enthusiasts in the 1950s, and she then ascended to high fame after her debut on the Ed Sullivan show in 1958. When the gospel tradition came to its height in the 1960s, Mahalia Jackson became synonymous with the music and its message, which became an integral part of the civil rights movement.

In Nothing But the Blues, published by Abbeville Press, author Jim O’Neal writes a chapter on the blues revival of the 1960s, and he talks about the importance of blues and gospel for the civil rights movement, from freedom songs to spirituals and gospel. At the time, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) coordinator Worth Long sought musicians for the cause, to bring people together and raise community spirit. Long recalled:

The freedom singers would sing spirituals, gospel, and then they had some work song and blues element. The fact that it happened in jail for your freedom meant that it became sacred in a sense, no matter how you sang it. In jail, people sang a lot of blues, man, a lot of blues.

For International Women’s Day, we could all use some of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s and Mahalia Jackson’s open inspiration in confronting the continuing challenges women face. As Mahalia wrote in her 1966 autobiography: “Gospel songs are the songs of hope. When you sing them you are delivered of your burden. You have a feeling there is a cure for what’s wrong.” Thank you for spreading that hope, Mahalia—today we celebrate your memory and your legacy.

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Click here for more information on Nothing But the Blues, published by Abbeville Press.

Memphis Minnie and Her Mean Guitar

This studio glamour shot of Memphis Minnie hardly conveys her powerful approach to the blues. She was among the greatest blues artists of all time. Image from Nothing But the Blues.

As we mentioned last time, blues in the early 1920s was distinguished by the powerful performances and recordings of a number of women blues singers—Ma Rainey, Mamie Smith, Victoria Spivey, Ida Cox, and Bessie Smith each contributed her voice to the still-developing sound of the blues. Among them, Memphis Minnie made a name for herself, not only for her gritty, expressive voice but also for her hard-driving guitar. In her teens, she played guitar and sang on the streets in Memphis, and by the 1920s she had earned a name for herself and regularly performed at clubs, parties, and juke joints. She began recording in 1929, after a Columbia Records talent scout discovered her playing at a Beale street barbershop.

Minnie was one of the few early blues women with continued success all the way through into the 1950s. This was perhaps, in part, because she adapted fluidly to changing tastes and trends—she shifted her style from early down-home country blues to urban blues without losing her distinctive sound. That time of transition was hard on female blues musicians, and after the 1930s women were encouraged to take up popular music and show tunes. In Abbeville’s Nothing But the Blues, Mary Katherine Aldin describes the difficulties women faced in the blues industry:

They were “kept in their place” both personally and professionally, and with rare exceptions stayed that way until the late 1940s and early 1950s, when Memphis Minnie and Sister Rosetta Tharpe make it okay for their sisters to be tough, outspoken, and play a mean lead guitar.

Memphis Minnie broke away from gender stereotypes, and she kept women’s role in the blues alive long after men came to control the genre; she also paved the way for future generations of women blues artists and set an example for women working in any male-dominated industry. Her life and work serve as a challenge and an inspiration to us today.

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Click here for more information on Nothing But the Blues, published by Abbeville Press.

“Ma” Rainey, Mother of the Blues

“Ma” Rainey, one of the most important and influential of all female blues artists, seen with her Georgia Band, Georgia Tom Dorsey, piano. Image from Nothing But the Blues.

“Ain’t nobody in the world been able to holler ‘Hey Bo-weavil’ like her. Not like Ma. Nobody,” claimed fellow blueswoman Victoria Spivey about Gertrude Pridgett “Ma” Rainey. In “Bo-Weavil Blues,” one of her most popular songs, Ma Rainey sang—or bellowed, really, in her powerful, smoky contralto—lyrics such as “I don’t want no man to put no sugar in my tea.” Her performances have left a legacy of glamour, and recollections of Ma Rainey on stage include legends of her opening act of hiding inside an empty Victrola box and then emerging—decked out in sequins and a necklace made of gold twenty-dollar coins—singing “Moonshine Blues” to wild applause.

March is Women’s History Month, and at the Abbeville Blog we’re kicking things off this week with a closer look at some of the remarkable histories of women in the blues. Starting in the 1930s and 40s, blues music came to be dominated by men and their guitars, but decades earlier women played a formative role in the genre. In Nothing But the Blues, one of our authors, Richard Spottswood, reconstructs a timeline that begins at the turn of the twentieth century, when blues queen Ma Rainey, who was often billed as Mother of the Blues, may have been one of the very first people to hear and to sing the blues. Spottswood reports how, according to an interview by folksong scholar John W. Work, Ma Rainey first heard the blues when she was touring her tent-show in a small town in Missouri in 1902:

She tells of a girl from the town who came to the tent one morning and began to sing about the “man” who had left her. The song was so strange and poignant that it attracted much attention. Ma Rainey became so interested that she learned the song from the visitor, and used it often in her “act” as an encore.

More than twenty years passed between that fateful morning and the day Ma Rainey made her first blues recording in 1923, including “Bo-Weavil Blues.” Some of her other hits (songs such as “Sissy Blues,” “Prove It on Me Blues,” and “Hustling Blues”) can surprise new listeners even now with their head-on and no-holds-barred approach to taboo subjects—in them, Ma Rainey sings about homosexuality, prostitution, drug abuse, and social deviance. That doesn’t mean they’re vulgar. In fact, in his chapter on women and the blues, Spottswood writes: “These and other tough-minded songs pull no punches. They’re blues at their best, allowing humor to merge with grief, and candor in turn to displace vulgarity.”

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Click here for more information on Nothing But the Blues, published by Abbeville Press.

Presidents Day Blues: Jefferson, Jackson, and Johnson

Blind Lemon Jefferson was a veritable giant during his time and an unqualified commercial success to boot. Nevertheless, the photo seen here is the only known image of the artist. The autograph, by a blind man, is the work of a publicist. From Nothing But the Blues.

Here at the Abbeville Blog, we thought: what better way to celebrate the holiday than in remembrance of a few unforgettable historical figures? Jefferson, Jackson, and Johnson are names that have gone down in history, men whose leadership and defining influence made for groundbreaking cultural change. Of course, we’re talking about Blind Lemon Jefferson, Papa Charlie Jackson, and Alonzo “Lonnie” Johnson, who each in their own part pioneered the blues in the 1920s.

Lawrence Cohn has assembled a comprehensive collection of essays and photographs on the history of blues and blues musicians in his book Nothing But the Blues, published by Abbeville Press, which documents the early roots of the genre, the emergence of various traditions—Delta blues, country blues, gospel, urban blues, the origins of R&B—then continues into the blues revival of the 1960s, and through into the 1990s.

In Nothing But the Blues, we learn the history of legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson and his “primordial” blues. Though Jefferson had a brief stint as a wrestler, his music is his legacy, and as one of our authors, David Evans, describes:

He was blessed with a strong, expressive, high, clear voice, a gift for creating poignant lyrics and for drawing others from the folk tradition, and a seemingly unlimited fund of interesting and often technically difficult ideas on the guitar. He was a true artist, obviously absorbed in making and creating music. … Mississippi bluesmen accused him of “breaking time” and playing music that wasn’t danceable, but none of this lessened his popularity.

Papa Charlie Jackson, from Nothing But the Blues.

Another blues giant, Lonnie Johnson, grew up playing the violin in his father’s string band, but he made a revolutionary leap when he “transferred a violinist’s sensibility—an emphasis on single line playing enhanced by slurs and vibrato—to the guitar, on which such playing was new.” We also discover banjo player Papa Charlie Jackson, who “played an archaic ragtime/minstrel style on the six-string banjo-guitar.” The appeal of these three musicians, we learn, “soon rivaled the vaudeville ladies of New York.”

These three are just a few among countless musicians and stories described in Nothing But the Blues. In consideration of today’s holiday, we would be amiss not to mention Hammie Nixon, harmonica player extraordinaire and accompanist to legendary Sleepy John Estes. And of course, let’s not forget to pay our respects to Lightnin’ Washington and Laughing Charlie Lincoln, our official honorees. Happy Presidents Day!

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