Learn more Shop now Shop now Shop now Shop now Shop now Shop now Learn More Shop now Learn more Shop Fire Shop Kindle Learn More Shop now Shop Women's Shop Men's

Customer reviews

4.0 out of 5 stars
4.0 out of 5 stars
5 star
4 star
3 star
2 star
1 star

There was a problem filtering reviews right now. Please try again later.

TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 7 October 2015
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.
0Comment| One person found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on 29 December 1998
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).
0Comment| 8 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on 31 December 1998
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.
0Comment| 3 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on 7 December 2014
THanks for a great book
0Comment|Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on 1 May 2015
Text book
0Comment|Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse

Sponsored Links

  (What is this?)