Blues Women

So, I’m flipping through Publisher’s Weekly, and I see that there’s a new book coming out: Delta Blues: The Life  and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music by Ted Gioia.  And I’m immediately irritated by the PW review.

Now I want to be clear.  I haven’t read Gioia’s book and it seems to me from the title and subtitle of the book that he’s being very careful and specific about his subject.  And authors have no control over what reviewers say about their books.  So my beef is not at all with Gioia.

But look at this, from the review:

Gioia (The History of Jazz) succeeds admirably in the daunting task of crafting a comprehensive history of the art form known as the blues, depicting the life story of the music from its cradle in the Mississippi Delta all the way to its worldwide influence on contemporary sounds. His sweeping examination focuses on the legends in detail, including Charley Patton, Son House, Tommy Johnson, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King and many more. He often deconstructs myths, such as the story that both Tommy Johnson and Robert Johnson made midnight deals with the devil at the crossroads, and digs deep to clarify many murky stories, including untruths and wild speculations about the life and early death of Robert Johnson. His narrative follows the northern migration of the blues to Chicago, where Muddy Waters recorded for Chess Records, and along the way he analyzes the influence of Delta blues on Elvis, the Rolling Stones and other rock ‘n’ roll icons. Gioia dissects many songs, but he doesn’t write beyond the understanding of general readers, creating the rare combination of a tome that is both deeply informative and enjoyable to read.

See?  See?!

This is the story, as we are constantly told, that the blues came out of “its cradle in the Mississippi Delta” came spurting through the bodies of a long line of men who can each trace their knowledge back to a teacher who should, in turn, be given props, from Waters to Johnson to House to Patton to Sloan to… someone back there in the mysterious past who learned from someone further back in a mysteriouser pastier past, that someone being, of course, another man.

I think we might benefit from bringing Nolan Porterfield in for a second.  Shall we do a little time traveling of our own?  Let’s go two and a half years back.

Yesterday I got to hear Nolan Porterfield talk about the history of recording devices.  He was talking about how someone was all excited about their new mode of inquiry.  They were going to set out to discover why all old songs were three minutes long or less.

No great reason, just that that’s how much recording time you had.

So, then, he turns to this question–”Why does all our American music have its roots in the South?”

Is it because of the unique mixture of religion and culture, with a dash of “too hot to do anything else?”

Or is it because the South was just far enough away from New York City and Washington DC to seem exotic but close enough that you could easily get there by train?

I’ll give you three guesses which Nolan Porterfield is leaning towards.

In other words, it’s imperative that we not tell the story the evidence points towards without understanding why we have the evidence we do.  Old songs are three and a half minutes long because that’s how much music fits on a record side.  We have a bunch of awesome music from the South not because the South was necessarily unique in its production of music, but because that’s where the folks with the recording devices went.

That’s part of it.

I mean, we know Alan Lomax recorded in prisons not because prisoners are somehow more musical than the rest of the population, but because prisoners were more available to him–because they were happy to have something novel or because the warden said they would.

And yet, there were pockets of unusualness, too–fife and drums in the hill country, strange fiddle concoctions up in the Appalachians.

It’s just this.  Charlie Patton is often credited with being the father of the Delta blues.  Patton, born in 1891, was said to have learned the art form from a Henry Sloan, a Mississippian born around 1870, and he and Patton would have been living in the same area around the turn of the century.  And so, yes, it makes sense and tells a certain kind of compelling story–that there’s this guy, Sloan, who knows this weird form of music that he dug out of some even more remote exotic corner of the Delta, that, when young black men heard it, they wanted to learn it and play it, and that, eventually, it spilled out all over the nation and then the world and became rock and roll.

All these poor, itinerant musicians doing this strange individual thing that we now know as the Blues.

The story starts to lose the weight of truth even if you just learn that Muddy Water(s) had a band he played with there outside of Clarksville, that Robert Johnson traveled not just all over the Delta, but all over the country.

But it really starts to feel like a myth when you tilt your head just up the road, between Clarksville and Memphis, to where Bessie Smith died.  And you might wonder, just who is this Bessie Smith and how does she fit in?  Bessie Smith, born in Chattanooga at the turn of the century, not much later than Charlie Patton, who was singing in clubs by 1913, and who learned the business of the blues from Ma Rainey, who was herself born in Georgia in 1886, and who learned the art form we call the blues from a girl in St. Louis in 1902.  It’s not as if St. Louis is a world away from the Delta, of course, but these women–Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey and so on–were extremely popular, widely traveled, and widely heard.

America, I ask you this: what influence did these women, so popular and so widely recorded and sold, have on those men?

I, myself, don’t know.

And yet, I see Bessie Smith in the Delta at the end of her life, there at the same time as Johnson and Morganfield and all these guys and I feel like I haven’t been told that story.

And I feel cheated.

4 thoughts on “Blues Women

  1. you’ve really piqued my interest on this subject. not only b/c it’s my home state, but in the realm of why women such as Bessie Smith had no voice, or very little at least as the case may be.

    The reason the Delta was not a “world away” was solely because of one thing – the railroad. I see what you’re saying about the exotic thing about the Delta too, as I recall all too well the days of “Sugar Ditch” in DeSoto County — and not too long ago, Tunica – now famous for it’s casinos – sat in the POOREST county in the nation.

    I remember being a kid in the ’80s, and watching the Tupelo NBC affiliate and seeing imagery from Tunica of children playing in mud in tattered clothes. The images harkened to others I had seen on news reports detailing the plight of the drought and famine in Africa. So, I guess the Delta has always been a curiosity to those from the outside, as I, 3 hours away as a child, saw this community akin to a land far away, and didn’t understand how anyone could live that way – and even then understood that no one should have to.

    In my experience, especially in my home state, much more so than here in Nashville, there is still a kind of social segregation at times — as the menfolk tend to still congregate at the coffee shop and chew the fat. Women are not invited, and frankly have other things to do — like their own social clubs. And perhaps at that point in time, the guys with the recording equipment happened upon these men in their element, not actually a coffee shop, but something like it, and when the opportunity presented itself, the recording equipment was set up, the women weren’t around, etc. Maybe Bessie was tending to the children or washing the laundry. Who knows…

    But yeah, her story deserves to be told

  2. Yeah, but Beth, that’s what’s so weird to me. At the time, Bessie Smith had to be one of the richest, most famous black women in the country. The Delta blues were only a mildly popular artform (though popular enough that recording industry folks kept coming down to record them) but Blues Women?

    Incredibly famous for their time. Very popular. Records sold like hotcakes. Bessie Smith died in a car accident–in her car. In 1938. A Southern black woman in the middle of the Depression with enough money to die in a car.

    That’s what I find so baffling and interesting about the story we’re not being told. We’re being told this story that is basically still very segregated by gender–where the blues is an artform developed and perfected by isolated rural Delta men, and while there were some women, they don’t really matter.

    But those women were rich and famous in their day and they came to the communities these men lived in, already singing the types of music these men are supposed to be developing out of thin air, and yet, when we hear the story of the blues, we never get told that. And we never get taught how to understand what kinds of influence it might have had on those men to see those performers or hear of them or hear music by them.

    I don’t think that has as much to do with the sexism of the day as our own blind spots now.

  3. That makes me sad. I love blues women. I’d love to know more about them.

    This kind of “comprehensive history” is pretty common in my area of study too. If you want to claim to be an expert in Modernist poets, for example, you read T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and a few other dudes that these men corresponded with and learned from and taught. But you do not have to read Marianne Moore, a gender-bending poet who EP and WCW grudgingly respected; Hilda Doolittle, proto-Imagist who infatuated EP and WCW in their youths and who became one of Freud’s last patients; Mina Loy, Djuna Barnes, who each wrote in ways that staggered the male poets (including T.S. Eliot, who wrote the foreword for Barnes’ book) and who led fascinating lives as ex-pats and provocateurs!
    Studying the male Modernists is “literature.” Studying the female Modernists is “specialty” – something you’d do for a women’s studies minor, but is not necessary otherwise. (And folks wonder why women’s studies exists.)

    I agree it’s a present and actively blinding blind spot, but those prejudices were handed down to us in the form of canon. It has a little to do with how the success of those blues women and those female poets was framed at their time, and then whether or not folks remembered to anthologize them afterward.

  4. Well, sure, there’s a male-centered canon, as tanglethis says. For the blues as for anything else. But also, the blues women get ignored because they completely challenge the mythos of blues as an anti-pop, anti-mass-culture musical form. (Which ties back into the male narrative of the man who lights out for the territories, hops a train and rides, in one way or another is the outsider.) Because if you put the blues women back into the story, you don’t just have to accept that women influenced the men who crowded them out; you also have to accept that blues was culturally connected to ragtime and even vaudeville, and was one of the pop cultures of the US in the first third of the 20th century. And we can’t have that!

Comments are closed.