The Classic Women Blues singers were a critical part of the evolution of blues and jazz singing and performance in the early 20th century — a genre of American music largely ignored by the music industry, critics and historians until decades later.
Women like Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Sippie Wallace, Ida Cox, Alberta Hunter and Victoria Spivey molded a new more sophisticated blues genre taking from country blues songs, vaudeville and the newly emerging jazz. In 1920, Mamie Smith was the first Black to record her singing, and many more recordings of these gutsy women during the 20′s are a legacy of an exciting decade of economic boom, migration, the Harlem Renaissance, glamor and loosening sexual mores. During the decade between 1910 and 1920, some 60,000 Blacks moved out of the South to Chicago alone.
From Minstrel Shows and Vaudeville
Most of these women came out of the minstrel and vaudeville shows of the time — starting at very young ages — Bessie Smith at 9 and Ma Rainey at 14. Exploited and underpaid, they traveled the South with groups like the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. Eventually these women organized their own back-up bands, donned sequins and feathers and took their shows from Houston to Chicago and New York. So while Blues until the 1920′s was largely local, rural, Southern and male, these women were urban performance artists, traveling and performing in the new speakeasies and nightclubs of a dynamic era.
Their songs were filled with double entendre like “Hello Central”:
“Hello Central, Give me Chicken 69
Get my sweetie electrician, put him on my private line
My hall lights ain’t workin’ and my double sockets loose
Come look at my meter, I think I’m out of juice.”
As the decade progressed the lyrics became sexier. Bessie Smith sang of wanting “Sugar for her bowl, and hotdogs for her roll,” while Chippie Hill might plead “Give it to me Papa, I’m wild about that thing,” and Clara Smith — known as the world’s greatest moaner sang “Whip it to a jelly, if you like jelly roll.” While the lyrics could be playful and mischievous, their singing styles broke new ground. Bessie Smith is credited with sliding a note over into the next bar for the first time and that would become a defining style for later jazz singers.
Finished by the 1930′s
With the Stock Market crash at the end of the decade and the Depression of the 30′s many of these women receded into obscurity, were forgotten or died — Bessie Smith was killed in a car accident in rural Mississippi in 1937 at the age of 39.
Resurrection in the 1970′s and 80′s
In the 1960′s the resurgence of interest in the Blues meant that survivors of the Classic Blues era — Sippie Wallace, Alberta Hunter and Victoria Spivey — had a chance for new careers.
Bonnie Raitt honored Sippie Wallace by recording her songs and performing with her on stage. Alberta Hunter sang in clubs in New York until the 1980′s – into her 80′s! — and Victoria Spivey set up her own recording company to discover and record women blues singers. In 1976, I found Victoria Spivey in New York City and produced a programfor WBAI-FM about her.
A number of the Classic Women Blues Singers can be found in priceless footage on YouTube: Mamie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Ida Cox, and Victoria Spivey. These extraordinary performers inspired August Wilson's brilliant play, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," first produced in New York in the 1980's.Books