In Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, Angela Davis directs our attention away from the normal biographical and technical narratives of blues histories and instead focuses on the social issues raised in the songs of three legends of the blues, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, together with their position within the realm of black, and equally importantly feminist, consciousness.
Most of her attention is directed towards Rainey and Smith, and in addition to analysis of the songs there are transcriptions of their lyrics, occupying about half of the book, in themselves an invaluable resource.
Davis identifies the context for the making of the blues as the sudden freedoms experienced by the black population of the US following the Civil War. In particular there was suddenly a release of agency in what former slaves did with their time, and also where they spent it. All of a sudden they were able to go more-or-less where they pleased, the reason why so many blues songs refer to geographical movement.
Aside from the possibility of education, the other change delivered by emancipation was in sexual agency, again the subject of many blues songs, not in the least those of Rainey, Smith and Holiday.
With direct reference to the songs, Davis explores the many facets of the blues in relation to sexuality, noting that conventional ideas of romantic love and family life are all but absent. Instead there are strong expressions of female sexual desire as an end in itself, as well as specific references to physical abuse, prostitution, same-sex relationships – Rainey was well-known to be a lesbian, but songs also refer to male same-sex relationships – and infidelity. On this latter subject there is the occasional reference to imposing the ultimate sanction on a cheating man, a detail having its male equivalent in songs such as Hendrix’s Hey Joe many years later.
Sexual promiscuity was partly aided by geographic promiscuity, and the women studied by Davis were as open to both as were men.
Given that no live recordings exist of Rainey and Smith, the songs we have access to by them were according to the mediation of white record executives, hence probably the rarity of an overt political message. Nevertheless, there are songs which address poverty, inequality, the drudgery of work and the privations of imprisonment. There are also, Davis points out, messages encoded within the lyrics, not to mention the very act of producing a black art form of such high sophistication in itself constituted a very political statement. Moreover, the blues offered a very concrete alternative to the dead hand of the church, which recognised the threat and wasted no time in condemning “the devil’s music”. The threat was the greater for the songs’ frequent utilisation of symbolism from African cultures, and Davis provides several examples where specifically Yoruba symbolism and beliefs are evident.
In the penultimate chapter, the first of two predominantly concentrating on Billie Holiday, Davis articulates a familiar duality: on the one hand regretting Holiday’s apparent inability to gain agency within her relationships with men and the way this is often reflected in her lyrics, talking of unfaithfulness and violence; on the other hand celebrating Holiday’s ability often to subvert a literal interpretation of the lyrics through the inflection of her voice. Notwithstanding the feminist temptation to dismiss Holiday as a gendered equivalent of Uncle Tom, there is ultimately the irresistible urge to embrace Holiday as a sister articulating one reality of being a woman. Furthermore, Davis – and she is not alone here amongst female commentators – dismisses some of the more negative views of Holiday’s life, characterising Motown’s depiction in Lady Sings The Blues as a kind of reverse Disneyfication where everyone lives miserably ever after.
What is incontrovertible, though, is the all-encompassing courage Holiday displayed in performing and recording Strange Fruit. If the expression Career Suicide had been extant in 1939, when the song was recorded, there could have been no better exemplar for it. Hitherto, Holiday’s repertoire had avoided overt social commentary, thereby enabling the critical fraternity to laud her for her pure artistry. Holiday gave as her motivation for adopting the song the experiences of her father, who died due to a war-related sickness which went untreated due to hospital service segregation in the southern states. But the threat of lynchings was still all too real: Davis informs us that there were 150 in the four years following the Wall Street Crash, and gives a macabre description of gothic proportions of a “lynching” in Florida in 1934 which involved extensive pre-death torture.
Fortunately, Holiday’s career survived, and even thrived on, the backwash. Strange Fruit constituted a watershed moment for American popular culture, placing the reality of lynching and racial brutality in general in the public arena. It also broke the previous taboo of mixing fame and commercial success with social consciousness.
The devil, as it were, is in the detail, and while I can’t here emulate that I can say that Davis does an excellent job of getting into, around and underneath the songs of her subjects, and some of their contemporaries, to show that it is fine to treat them at face value, but that there is so much more to be discovered on closer examination. Anybody wishing to enrich their listening would profit from reading this book.