Lifestyle

Depending on Your Zip Code, the Blues Reigns Supreme

Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith Biopics Celebrate Power of Blues Women

The first thing visitors to the Mississippi Delta notice is the heat – thick, stifling and at times unyielding – which locals say can only be calmed by the cool of shade trees and a steady supply of sweet tea.

But like the heat which cannot be ignored, the Delta’s generations-old blues traditions also remain an integral part of life. And while many Americans set aside the blues with the birth of the Motown sound and The Sound of Philadelphia, the popularity of the recent Netflix film “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and HBO’s “Bessie” have reignited a love of blues shouting women.

The recordings of blues women, including Rainey, Bessie Smith, Big Mama Thornton and Big Maybelle have increased in sales in recent months particularly among Black who have embraced the singers’ liberating lyrics and style.

“It became important to African Americans to shake off the things that the outside world considered primitive and uncivilized. What could be more upsetting to folks’ sensibilities than a big, Black woman standing up on stage singing ‘I Need a Little Sugar for My Bowl’?” said historian Belle Richie. “These women were powerful onstage and off, commanding in their presence and demanding in their affairs.”

Richie said these earlier trailblazers faced open hostility from venue owners and promoters as well as unscrupulous business practices from record labels and producers. Their ability to successfully navigate organizations like Theatre Owners Booking Association, which artists including Rainey referred to as Tough on Black Asses, eventually lead to artists negotiating the rights and royalties to their own music.

“The music industry loved the soulfulness of the blues, especially the ladies, which gave way to rock and roll and later rhythm and blues but it did not love Black artists,” Richie said. “Sometimes, the more powerful the vocals or instrumentals, the more lucrative the sound. But this meant paying Black women well – an idea which was offensive especially if the record executive could cheat them out of [their money].”

By demanding record executives to honor verbal agreements as many Black blues women never had written contracts, the women were labeled “difficult,” “aggressive” and “unprofessional.” Still, they assumed regal titles like “The Mother,” “Empress” and “Queen of the Blues” and rose to stardom delivering unfettered lyrics and sexual freedom on wax.

Director George C. Wolfe noted, “When I signed on to direct ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,’ I instantly knew I wanted to work with Branford Marsalis because when you collaborate with Branford the composer/arranger, Branford the historian, musicologist, dramatist and raconteur shows up as well.”

“And because he understands the inherently transgressive nature of the blues, Branford’s arrangements capture not only the cultural and regional DNA in Ma Rainey’s songs but the wit and rage embedded in every note, shout and moan,” he said.

“Those low moans and those guttural shouts were so unladylike to sophisticated folks,” music historian Alfreida Morton said with a laugh while talking to the Informer. “These were women who were big and robust, they embodied the original definition of ‘The Venus.’ Those bodies exuded sexuality and sensuality at a time when women were not supposed to have an inkling about sex or their sexuality.”

Morton said when coupled with bold sexual innuendo, these entertainers demonstrated sexual autonomy and hypnotized both their audiences, men and women alike – all the while challenging codes of respectability.

Activist and scholar Angela Davis documents this rebellion of sorts in “Blues Legacies and Black Feminism.”

“Musical expressions during slavery were about the collective experiences, hardships and desires of enslaved people; emancipation created a black musical tradition which focused, rather, on the individual’s needs and desires. Bessie Smith’s songs, laden with innuendos and sexual metaphors, tell stories of empowerment, freedom, and independence,” Davis writes. “These female characters in her songs are clearly in control of their sexuality in ways that exploit neither their partners nor themselves.”

Cassietta Ross, a retired nursing home administrator in Cleveland, Miss., said that shouting blues women gave voice to a generation of Black women whose “girlhood” began with a laundry list of etiquette mandates which had to followed to maintain the label “good girls.”

“My mama snuck down to see Lucille Bogan when she was a young girl and no one would have known except she was heard singing the lyrics to ‘Shave ‘Em Dry’ under her breath,” Ross said. “She lived to be 99 and still had that scar cross her forehead where my granddaddy popped her.

“We wanted respectable young ladies in our family but we all would sneak to see these women dressed in rhinestones and silk with feathers and singing naughty songs. It was our early version of Lil’ Kim or Megan Thee Stallion.”

Ross said while nationwide the popularity of blues music ebbs and flows, in places like the Delta it remains alive and well – without exception.

“I’m waiting to see what they going to do down at Ground Zero – that’s Morgan Freeman’s place in Clarksdale – with the live shows,” Ross said. “It’s always a good time down there and that spirit of sexual freedom and fun rests right there.”

“This music reminds us that no matter what hardships ladies face, there’s room for love around the corner. That’s a rebellion all by itself because we’re still here living and loving in spite of everything,” she said.

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