Friday, February 17, 2012

Blues and Black History Month

Blues and Black History Month

In an attempt to get you know fully experience black history month beyond Rosa Parks and MLK, here's some lesser known black historical figures.

You may have seen the play, but Ma Rainey was a blues singer who was awesome and during her time 1880s - 1925s did scandalous things like... talk about her sexuality!!! especially in the song

Take notice to the double entendres. She is also the mother of blues. She made a ton of white folks angry by not putting up with their shit when they tried to get her to sign record contracts, making sure she was paid her due. Just take a listen to the song, it's really good.

Also, if you've never read it, Angela Davis's book, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday is an excellent historical analysis of the little known things about the blues women, for instance, she talks about how "Ma" Rainey was bisexual and challenged a lot of gender conventions of the time through her music.

Here's part of the first chapter

Like most forms of popular music, African-American blues lyrics talk about love. What is distinctive about the blues, however, particularly in relation to other American popular musical forms of the 1920s and 1930s is their intellectual independence and representational freedom. One of the most obvious ways in which blues lyrics deviated from that era's established popular musical culture was their provocative and pervasive sexual--including homosexual--imagery.

By contrast, the popular song formulas of the period demanded saccharine and idealized nonsexual depictions of heterosexual love relationships. Those aspects of lived love relationships that were not compatible with the dominant, etherealized ideology of love--such as extramarital relationships, domestic violence, and the ephemerality of many sexual partnerships--were largely banished from the established popular musical culture. Yet these very themes pervade the blues. What is even more striking is the fact that initially the professional performers of this music--the most widely heard individual purveyors of the blues--were women. Bessie Smith earned the title "Empress of the Blues" not least through the sale of three-quarters of a million copies of her first record.

And a little more, why not.
The blues did not entirely escape the influences that shaped the role of romantic love in the popular songs of the dominant culture. Nevertheless, the incorporation of personal relationships into the blues has its own historical meanings and social and political resonances. Love was not represented as an idealized realm to which unfulfilled dreams of happiness were relegated. The historical African-American vision of individual sexual love linked it inextricably with possibilities of social freedom in the economic and political realms. Unfreedom during slavery involved, among other things, a prohibition of freely chosen, enduring family relationships. Because slaves were legally defined as commodities, women of childbearing age were valued in accordance with their breeding potential and were often forced to copulate with men--viewed as "bucks"--chosen by their owners for the sole purpose of producing valuable progeny. Moreover, direct sexual exploitation of African women by their white masters was a constant feature of slavery. What tenuous permanence in familial relationships the slaves did manage to construct was always subject to the whim of their masters and the potential profits to be reaped from sale. The suffering caused by forced ruptures of slave families has been abundantly documented.

Given this context, it is understandable that the personal and sexual dimensions of freedom acquired an expansive importance, especially since the economic and political components of freedom were largely denied to black people in the aftermath of slavery. The focus on sexual love in blues music was thus quite different in meaning from the prevailing idealization of romantic love in mainstream popular music. For recently emancipated slaves, freely chosen sexual love became a mediator between historical disappointment and the new social realities of an evolving African-American community. Ralph Ellison alludes to this dimension of the blues. I think, when he notes "their mysteriousness ... their ability to imply far more than they state outright and their capacity to make the details of sex convey meanings which touch on the metaphysical."
Sexuality was central in both men's and women's blues. During the earliest phases of their history, blues were essentially a male phenomenon. The archetypal blues singer was a solitary wandering man accompanied by his banjo or guitar, and, in the words of blues scholar Giles Oakley, his principal theme "is the sexual relationship. Almost all other themes, leaving town, train rides, work trouble, general dissatisfaction, sooner or later revert to the central concern." In women's blues. which became a crucial element of the rising black entertainment industry, there was an even more pronounced emphasis on love and sexuality.

The representations of love and sexuality in women's blues often blatantly contradicted mainstream ideological assumptions regarding women and being in love. They also challenged the notion that women's "place" was in the domestic sphere. Such notions were based on the social realities. of middle-class white women's lives, but were incongruously applied to all women, regardless of race or class. This led to inevitable contradictions between prevailing social expectations and black women's social realities. Women of that era were expected to seek fulfillment within the confines of marriage, with their husbands functioning as providers and their children as evidence of their worth as human beings. The sparsity of allusions to marriage and domesticity in women's blues therefore becomes highly significant.

In Bessie Smith's rendition of "Sam Jones Blues," which contains one of the few commentaries on marriage to be found in her body of work, the subject is acknowledged only in relation to its dissolution. Her performance of this song satirically accentuates the contrast between the dominant cultural construction of marriage and the stance of economic independence black women were compelled to assume for their sheer survival
So there, you get to learn something new every day and get exposed to something you wouldn't normally learn from your generic white-person teachings of Black History Month.

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