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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars who's afraid of angela davis?
Many of the reviewers have missed the most useful point of Davis's book. When she talks about "proto-feminist consciousness" she means that the lives and music of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith (her arguments about Holiday are not quite as convincing) paved the way for modern feminism. As working-class black women, these two singers were utterly alienated from...
Published on 29 Dec 1998

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Overstated politics keep book from acheiving its potential
Somewhere in "Blues Legacies," Angela Davis the Activist and Angela Davis the Scholar collided leaving both worse for wear. This is a powerfully stated, well-intentioned study that loses focus and credibility by screaming, rather than supporting its ideology. Davis argues that three foremothers of American blues music, Ma' Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie...
Published on 31 Dec 1998


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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars who's afraid of angela davis?, 29 Dec 1998
By A Customer
This review is from: Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (Hardcover)
Many of the reviewers have missed the most useful point of Davis's book. When she talks about "proto-feminist consciousness" she means that the lives and music of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith (her arguments about Holiday are not quite as convincing) paved the way for modern feminism. As working-class black women, these two singers were utterly alienated from the "hearth and home" that defined the "official version" of (white) woman's identity. Yet were they not still women? They broke all of the rules at the intersection of domesticity and Jim Crow: They worked outside the home, they traveled extensively, they chose their lovers, they were artists, and they were band-leaders. None of these positions fit neatly within the prevailing attitudes about woman's place. So, before the 1970s feminist movements explored these same topics (sexuality, gender roles, working women), Rainey and Smith had lived and sung about it.
Whereas white feminists find white women's literature a valuable place to search for roots of feminism, Davis and other scholars of black American culture (in which the struggle for literacy has still not ben won) have found music to be a rich source of personal and communal histories and social commentary. So music is where she searches to find articulations of women who already lived identities in conflict with the prevailing notions of femininity. No one need fear Davis's use of the term feminist or her use of race and class to analyze these women's music. Race, class, and gender undoubtedly determined the possibilities for these women's lives.
Davis draws upon existing definitions of the blues and also expands the definition to include the "proto-feminist consciousness" of black women. Davis's discussion of the blues idiom is comprehensive. Each blues motif is carefully examined for the cultural work it does when sung by men and by women. Traveling and choosing lovers are, to Davis, reflective of the new mobility and autonomy blacks experienced from Reconstruction on. Davis also outlines the blues' sometimes individualistic emphasis with the communal performance of spirituals. When Davis describes the blues aesthetic of Rainey and Smith, she shows their convergence with and divergence from that of black male blues singers. With this strategy, she makes it impossible to talk about the blues again without including the particular way that black women participate(d) in the blues.
The only part of the book that was not convincing was her section on Billie Holiday. Although I believe that Holiday was able to work against the often demeaning lyrics she promoted for Tin Pan Alley hacks, I find it harder to imagine Davis's point of view of Holiday's music as proto-feminist. In book format, one does not have Holiday's recordings handy to compare Davis's interpretations of her pronunciation and shading with Holiday's recorded voice. With Smith and Rainey, however, the lyrics are closely associated with the message, and Davis is better able to prove her claim. I also have some issues with Holiday (evaluated by her music) as proto-feminist blues woman. The few 12-bar blues she sang certainly fall in the tradition of Rainey and Smith. "Fine and Mellow" describes a great lover whom she'll leave nonetheless if he doesn't treat her right. "Billie's Blues" ends with the assertion that "[I'm] everything a good man needs!" However, I think that, although Holiday is to Northern jazz what Rainey and Smith were to the migration-born blues, Dinah Washington might have made a better musical comparison with Rainey and Smith. A few claims in the Holiday section prevent this otherwise flawless book from gaining five stars.
A quick mention of Davis's compilation of the previously unwritten lyrics to Rainey's and Smith's recordings: Her undertaking will provide very useful to future singers and jazz or blues critics. It is difficult to hear the lyrics on these early recordings, thus she makes a couple of mistakes. I do take issue with her spelling; she writes what Rainey and Smith sang in Black English/Ebonics in Standard English. She sometimes ruins the original sense AND sound of the lyrics when she translates them into academically acceptable language. Still, an extremely important undertaking, despite the times she misheard and miswrote the lyrics. (She admits the possibility of her mishearing the songs in her preface.) Again, Davis's analysis of Rainey and Smith must alter the way we think about the culutral significance of blues (and its outgrowth, jazz).
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Overstated politics keep book from acheiving its potential, 31 Dec 1998
By A Customer
This review is from: Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (Hardcover)
Somewhere in "Blues Legacies," Angela Davis the Activist and Angela Davis the Scholar collided leaving both worse for wear. This is a powerfully stated, well-intentioned study that loses focus and credibility by screaming, rather than supporting its ideology. Davis argues that three foremothers of American blues music, Ma' Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday, offered up a version of black, working-class feminism through their songs that emphasized self-suffiency, personal pride, and admitting one's shortcomings. These value, the author asserts, sprouted into the feminist conciousness of the 1960's, largely coded as white and middle class. Davis thorough knowledge of black musical criticism and exhaustive study of the three artist's lyrics makes this central assertion a convincing one. From here, I waited for her to place it in a historical context and ask some tough questions about the role of women in popular music which would tie the study firmly to contemporary discourse. It never happened. Davis hammers this feminist assertion into submission for nearly 200 pages, never letting it mature beyond simple declaration. The role of black feminism in the 20th century is under-explored and long overdue. Yet the author never grants it the weight it deserves. How did this black feminism figure into the process of composition since Rainey, Smith and Holiday wrote very few of their songs? How did these Artists influence their children from the Shirelles to Tina Turner to Salt n' Pepa? The potential for answering these important question is all over "Blues Legacies" yet Angela Davis keeps getting in her own way. A scholar shouldn't have to choose between their message and their scholarship but this case, a frustering collision might have been avoided.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars, 7 Dec 2014
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THanks for a great book
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Blues Legacies and Black Feminism
Blues Legacies and Black Feminism by Angela Davis (Hardcover - Feb 1998)
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