Davis work is a powerful re-reading of Blues women, and firmly places them in the center, rather than the margin, of Black oppositional and autonomous culture discourse. The book is mostly devoted to the work of Gertrude Rainey and Bessie Smith, but there are important sections devoted to Billie Holiday as well. In each case, the Davis argues for a more complete contextual understanding of Blues women music as introducing gender issues, breaking discursive taboos, and forging meaning within the context of an imagined community of Black women's lives.
To begin with, Davis convincingly argues that Blues women were on the vanguard in breaking down taboos concerning domestic violence and male subjugation, as many Blues songs concerned these matters. Davis uses powerful works such as "Rough and Tumble Blues," "See See Rider Blues," and "Send Me to the 'Lectric Chair," to demonstrate that Blues women were willing to engage in oppositional, if allegorical, violence in the service of personal autonomy. Even man songs that seem to demonstrate acquiescence, even masochism, in the face of male abuse can be seen to have an ironic, subversive, or didactic quality that belies a simplistic surface reading.
Davis also takes on the common notion that Blues music doesn't include social protest, an interpretation that has been pushed by white commentators, such as Samuel Charters, and black commentators, such as Albert Murray. Davis argues that Blues music inherits from Slave musical culture a coded approach to naming and resistance that demands more than a surface analysis of the lyrics, and takes into account the role of music as a lyrical interlocuter. Focusing on tunes such as "Backwater Blues" and "Washwoman's Blues," Davis almost always effectively demonstrates that coded protest is still protest, and that women's blues historically anticipated and grounded mass movements in the areas of civil rights and feminism, while remaining linked with West African hermeneutic structure of naming and interpretation, such as "nommo."
In terms of Religious content, Davis forcefully recounts how women reconfigured a secular existential (or even "Devil's") music as prayer itself, magically and aesthetically conjured to exorcise emotions such as "the blues." At the same time, she harshly criticizes the Black church for adopting Christian dualisms concerning the moral status of body and spirit, which she sees as sexualized forms of racism and sexism--- since both blacks and women have been semiotically linked with earthiness and body as opposed to spirit by while male elites. Celebratory Sexuality, on the other hand, has always, according to Davis, been an oppositional aspect of black working-class consciousness. This extends beyond sexuality to an affirmation of Black folk religious life (such as Hoodoo) and crossing of class boundaries in the Blues, which Davis contends is a major reason Blues music was ignored and even distanced by Black elites during the Harlem Renaissance.
Davis's discussion of Billie Holiday is short (two chapters) but powerful, in which she argues that Holiday subversively appropriated the saccharine Tin Pan Alley love song format she was given as Slaves would have appropriated the English language upon their arrival in the North Americas. Holiday worked little in the formal Blues, but was nontheless grounded in the Blues idiom, from which she drew inspiration, and a subversive presentation of white romantic life to Black audiences. In this vein, such songs as "Strange Fruit" fit more coherently, and the ironic (and yet utopian) edge in her voice professes to the truth of Black women's lives, even in ways that on the surface seem to be feministically regressive.
There are isolated examples where Davis is less successful than at other times, but on the whole, her argumentation is strong and fearless, and her analogical and narrative analysis of the music along with lyrics adds, rather than detracts, from her argument.