- Also check our best rated Biography reviews
Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday (Vintage): Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday Paperback – 26 Jan 1999
- Choose from over 13,000 locations across the UK
- Prime members get unlimited deliveries at no additional cost
- Find your preferred location and add it to your address book
- Dispatch to this address when you check out
Frequently bought together
Customers who bought this item also bought
Enter your mobile number or email address below and we'll send you a link to download the free Kindle App. Then you can start reading Kindle books on your smartphone, tablet, or computer - no Kindle device required.
To get the free app, enter your mobile phone number.
About the Author
Angela Y. Davis is a political activist, scholar, author, and speaker. She is an outspoken advocate for the oppressed and exploited, writing on Black liberation, prison abolition, the intersections of race, gender, and class, and international solidarity with Palestine. She is the author of several books, including Women, Race, and Class and Are Prisons Obsolete? She is the subject of the acclaimed documentary Free Angela and All Political Prisoners and is distinguished professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
What other items do customers buy after viewing this item?
Top customer reviews
There was a problem filtering reviews right now. Please try again later.
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.
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).
Would you like to see more reviews about this item?