Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday by Angela Yvonne Davis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Davis explains that the Blues genre belongs to women just as much as it does men. Davis stated that the Blues provided a space where women could express themselves in new ways. By analyzing the work of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, Davis shows us the many themes their work embodied. Davis reminds us that the Blues, like the spirituals sang during slavery, are the collective property of the community.
Davis' primary focus was on the contributions of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith to the legacy of the Blues as well as a breakdown of their lyrics. This portion of the work seemed to go in circles and in my opinon there was a lot of unecessary dissecting. The research was thorough and insightful with some high points. There was little shared about the personal lives of Smith and Rainey outside of their sexuality and assertiveness. It was pointed out that even though their lyrics detailed graphic domestic violence there was little to no reference to the sexual assaults that were common during the time. To many, the songs sung by Smith and Rainey depicted women who tolerated violence for the sake of love.
Davis shed light on how the Blues genre was shunned and thought as "low" and "primitive" by the Black Arts movement of the 1920s known as the Harlem Renaissance. Whites of the time thought the genre to be childish, irrational, and bizarre. Two giants of the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, embraced the Blues. Rainey and Smith sang about the "hoodoo" that Hurston studied and experienced. Hughes dedicated much of his work to the Blues.
The latter two chapters were devoted to Billie Holiday. Both chapters felt rushed and I never really understood the main objective of the first one. Davis did explain how Strange Fruit was birthed from a poem written by Lewis Allen and not Holiday viewing an actual lynching. Not ever singing it the exact same way twice, Holiday wanted Strange Fruit to invoke solidarity among its listeners. From the research one can tell that Holiday was moved into the position of a voice for social justice.
I could not relate to the feminist perspective that Davis attempted to give voice to from the lyrics these women sang. Like one of the writers referenced in the text, I personally see the Blues as complaint and no protest. Davis made argument against such thought which like she was reaching. These women were entertainers. They related to the working class and sang their "blues." Holiday was a troubled soul that found freedom in the way she sang the lyrics to the songs she was given. Davis included some amazing "side bar" tidbits that were intriguing and charged. There was graphic details of the lynching of Claude Neal in FL and how the devastation of the 1927, Mississippi River flood affected Blacks. As well developed as Davis' thoughts were, I found the writing to be quite monotonous.
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