Classic female blues
|Classic female blues|
|Stylistic origins||African American folk music
|Cultural origins||Early 20th century, southern United States|
Classic female blues was an early form of blues music, popular in the 1920s. An amalgam of traditional folk blues and urban theater music, the style is also known as vaudeville blues. Classic blues were performed by female vocalists accompanied by pianists or small jazz ensembles, and were the first blues to be recorded. Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, and the other singers of this genre were instrumental in spreading the popularity of the blues.
Blues, a form of black folk music originating in the American south, functioned until about 1900 mainly as vocal work songs. Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (1886–1939), known as the “Mother of the Blues”, is credited as the first to perform the blues on stage as popular entertainment when she began incorporating blues into her act of show songs and comedy around 1902. Rainey had heard a woman singing about the man she’d lost, learned the song, and began using it as her closing number, calling it “the blues". Rainey's example was followed by other young women who followed her path in the tent show circuit, one of the few venues available to black performers. Most were booked on the black-owned T.O.B.A. (Theatre Owners Booking Association) circuit.
A key figure in popularizing the blues was composer W. C. Handy, who published the first of his blues songs in 1912. His compositions, notably "The Memphis Blues'" and "St. Louis Blues", quickly became standards for blues singers. Songs modeled on Handy's were performed in black stage shows, and were performed and recorded by white vaudevillians such as Sophie Tucker.
In 1919, Handy and the Harlem songwriter and music publisher Perry Bradford began a campaign to convince record companies that black consumers would eagerly purchase recordings by black performers. Bradford's persistence finally persuaded the General Phonograph Company to record the New York-based cabaret singer Mamie Smith in their Okeh studio on February 14, 1920. There they recorded two non-blues songs which, when released without fanfare that summer, produced a great sales success. On August 10, Mamie Smith became the first black woman to record the blues when she was brought back into the studio to record “Crazy Blues". The record sold over 75,000 copies in its first month, an extraordinary figure for the time. Smith became known as “America’s First Lady of the Blues”. Blues became a nationwide craze, and the recording industry actively scouted, booked and recorded hundreds of black female singers.
Marketed exclusively to African-American consumers, largely by advertisements in black newspapers such as The Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier, the blues recordings were typically labeled as "race records" to distinguish them from records sold to white audiences. Nonetheless, the recordings of some of the classic female blues singers were purchased by white buyers as well—for instance, Lucille Hegamin's recordings on the Paramount label in 1922, which were issued as part of the label's "popular" series rather than its "race" series.
The most popular of the classic blues singers was Tennessee-born Bessie Smith, who first recorded in 1923. Known as the “Empress of the Blues", she possessed a large voice with a “T’ain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do” attitude. Bessie (who was unrelated to Mamie Smith) had toured on the T. O. B. A. circuit since 1912, originally as a chorus girl; by 1918 she was appearing in her own revue in Atlantic City, New Jersey. She struggled initially to be recorded—three companies turned her down before she was signed with Columbia. She eventually became the highest-paid black artist of the 1920s, and recorded over 160 songs.
Ma Rainey, whose popularity in the South was unrivaled, was little-known in the cities of the North until 1923, when she made her first recordings. She and Bessie Smith brought about a change in the style of the classic blues, as audiences came to prefer their rougher, earthier sound to that of the lighter-voiced, more refined blues singers who had preceded them on record. Ma Rainey recorded over 100 songs, 24 of them her own compositions. According to jazz historian Dan Morgenstern, “Bessie Smith (and all the others who followed in time) learned their art and craft from Ma, directly or indirectly.”
Other classic blues singers who recorded extensively were Ethel Waters, Ida Cox, Clara Smith, and Sara Martin. Victoria Spivey and her cousin Sippie Wallace were both from Texas. Victoria Spivey was inspired by a Mamie Smith performance to become a blues singer, and achieved an overnight success in 1926 when Okeh released her first recording, her original “Black Snake Blues.” In 1929 she appeared in the first all-black talking film.
Decline and revival
By 1928, the vogue for the classic blues style was waning. With the success of the first commercial recordings of Blind Lemon Jefferson in 1926, a more "down-home", less urbane form of blues became popular, typically performed by men who were self-accompanied on guitar or piano. The effect of the Great Depression on black vaudeville and the recording industry, and also the trend toward Swing music in the 1930s, ended the careers of most of the classic blues singers. Some, like Ethel Waters, adapted to changing musical styles; some, like Lucille Hegamin and Sara Martin, subsequently worked mainly outside the entertainment field; others, like Hattie McDaniel and Edith Wilson, had success as actors in film and radio. Bessie Smith died in a car crash in 1937, at the age of 41. Lionel Hampton is quoted as saying, “Had she lived, Bessie would’ve been right up there on top with the rest of us in the Swing Era.”
Despite this downturn in female blues popularity, beginning in about 1933 and 1934, a number of female blues singers began recording what became swing blues. Artists like Lil Johnson, Memphis Minnie and Lucille Bogan (a/k/a/ Bessie Jackson) started recording for the ARC group of cheaper labels, as well as Decca (after late 1934). A number of 1920's female blues singers also made swing blues records (Victoria Spivey, Ida Cox, Bertha "Chippie" Hill).
In the 1960s a revival of interest in the blues brought Sippie Wallace, Alberta Hunter, Edith Wilson and Victoria Spivey back to the concert stage. In 1961 Victoria Spivey started her own record label, Spivey Records. In addition to recording herself, she recorded Lucille Hegamin, Memphis Slim, Lonnie Johnson and others.
The classic female blues singers were pioneers in the record industry, among the first black singers and blues artists recorded. They were also instrumental in popularizing the 12-bar blues throughout the US. Mahalia Jackson and Janis Joplin are among those who name Bessie Smith as an influence. According to LeRoi Jones, phonograph recordings of the classic blues singers "affected the existing folk tradition and created another kind of tradition that was unlike any other in the past".
Daphne Duval Harrison says that the blues women's contributions included "increased improvisation on melodic lines, unusual phrasing which altered the emphasis and impact of the lyrics, and vocal dramatics using shouts, groans, moans, and wails. The blues women thus effected changes in other types of popular singing that had spin-offs in jazz, Broadway musicals, torch songs of the 1930s and 1940s, gospel, rhythm and blues, and eventually rock and roll."
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