The Classic Blues and the women who sang them


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Ma Rainey and her band (from "Wild Women Don't Have the Blues")

3. 1900-1920s -- Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ida Cox and the Southern Circuit

When Ma Rainey comes to town,
Folks from anyplace miles aroun',
From Cape Girardeau, Poplar Bluff,
Flocks in to hear Ma do her stuff.

First among the Classic Blues singers was "Ma" Rainey. Tagged as the Mother of the Blues (probably by a record promoter), she was "the earliest link between the male country blues artists that roamed the backroads of the South and their female counterparts... the 'classic blues' singers." (Chris Albertson, "Bessie.")

Like many of her contemporaries, Ma Rainey began her career young and moved up quickly.

By 1904, with her husband "Pa" Rainey, she was barnstorming across the South with such traveling entertainment extravaganzas as the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, Tolliver's Circus, and the Florida Cotton Blossoms.

In his history "The Devil's Music," Giles Oakley writes,

"The blues was taken into a new relationship with its folk cultural origins; the blues singer -- at least the women singers of the 1920s -- was no longer an ordinary member of black society singing the songs of working people or playing for local dances. They were set up on stage, watched and listened to from afar, using every trick and stage device to 'present' their songs."

The stage effects were designed to impress the crowds. Dazzling with her ostrich feather fans and glitter headbands, Ma would appear on stage blowing kisses from an enormous box made to look like a phonograph, set against a huge eagle backdrop. (You can see the eagle in our picture.)

New Orleans jazz legend Danny Barker on "Ma"

"When you say 'Ma,' that means Mother. 'Ma,' that means the tops. That's the boss, the shack bully of the house. Ma Rainey. She's take-charge Ma. 'Ma Rainey's coming to town, the boss blues singer.' And you respect Ma. Grandma, my ma, and ma ma, that's Ma, that's something you respect when you say Mother. That's the boss of the shack, eh? Not papa. Mamma."

From "Wild Women Don't Have the Blues"

Bessie Smith -- future Empress of the Blues -- entered the entertainment circuit when she was nine years old, making her debut at the Ivory Theatre in her home town, Chattanooga, Tennesee.

Between 1913 and 1916, Bessie and Ma Rainey met while both were working for the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, when Ma was just short of 30 and Bessie was still in her teens. Legend has it that Ma Rainey kidnapped Bessie, acted a a mother figure to her, and taught her to sing the blues. What is true is that Ma Rainey's influence would be heard in Bessie's early recordings, and certainly in learning the new formalities of performance Rainey must have been a formidable model.

Among the tricks of presentation were stage makeup and elaborate costumes -- for Bessie, spectacular gold and jewels, plumes and fringed dresses.

Mae Barnes remembers...
"Bessie used to wear the most fabulous costumes. Birds of paradise all in her hair. Along the sides of her gowns there were feathers sticking out from everywhere. Then she changed and wore evening gowns with beads and rhinestones; they were popular in those days. No sequins, but just beads, beads, loads of beads and rhinestones, big rhinestones."

Both from "Wild Women Don't Have the Blues"

Ida Goodson played piano for Bessie in Florida:
"Her hair was way down here, shoulder length, and it was beautiful. That was a good looking woman. She was really pretty -- and she could sing, baby! Those men would just throw money up on the stage there -- I'd be saying, 'Throw something down here on the piano!'"



As these pioneering women changed the presentation, they also changed the blues themselves --

  • in the content of their songs
  • in the style of their singing
  • in their musical accompaniment.

Classic Blues singers like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith retained much of the country blues: in their twelve-bar, three-line structure, in their use of antiphonal accompaniments, and (especially in the case of Ma) in their rough-voiced moans, slurs, and blue notes.

But they combined the country blues elements with non-blues minstrelsy and vaudeville qualities that had audience appeal. Their songs were narrative and more universal in their appeal; they were popular music rather than folk music.

Some women vocalists (most notably Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Ida Cox) composed their own songs. But as music historian Jeff Todd Titon points out, most lyrics were "composed by professonal black tunesmiths who wrote sophisticated songs and skits for stage revues."

Folk or country blues singers, on the other hand, "obtained their lyrics by borrowing or trying to memorize traditional stanzas from other singers which they mixed with improvised stanzas" of their own.

There were still country elements of struggle and sorrow particular to black circumstances:

Many days of sorrow, many nights of woe,
Many days of sorrow, many nights of woe,
And a ball and chain, everywhere I go.
"Chain Gang Blues" (Ma Rainey)

But the central subject was now more often love, usually gone wrong, between men and women, dramatically acted out by the performers:

I'm leavin' this mornin' with my clothes in my hand,
I'm leavin' this mornin' with my clothes in my hand,
I won't stop movin' 'til I find my man.
"Lost Wandering Blues" (Ma Rainey)

And there were elements of hokum, lightheartedness, fun and parody, as well as topical songs and "ballits."

 Ida Goodson:
"I don't know, it's just something about it -- a woman can always sing the blues better than a man can."

Ida is featured in "Wild Women Don't Have the Blues"

"Sprightly blues and gospel performer Ida Goodson -- the scene stealer of the film -- gives a stunning exhibition of the intimate connection between gospel and blues when she takes the song 'Precious Lord' from a rich, slow gospel opening to a rollicking boogie-woogie conclusion." -- Chris Heim, Chicago Tribune

The blues women rarely accompanied themselves. Instead of singing to a lone guitar or banjo as the folk singers did, women were accompanied by jazz bands that now were becoming popular, music hall professionals like themselves who were veterans of the theatrical circuit.

They incorporated popular ragtime stanzas and tunes into their material, and their style was more instrumental, accompanying as it did the brass and reed instruments of the bands. Improvisation remained to a degree too, but their songs were almost always composed, polished, and presented in a calculated manner.

The effect of the blues women's ability to combine country blues elements with performance-oriented styles and themes was significant. It transformed the blues tradition from a personal, largely local expression of the singularly black experience into a public form of entertainment that could speak to a broad audience.

Traveling from Tallahassee to New Orleans to Memphis, the blues women carried local songs or verses througout an entire region, popularizing and standardizing them as they went and introducing them to white as well as black audiences.

Equally important -- and one reason why these performers are considered "classic" -- is the influence they had on other blues singers.

In the pre-vaudeville era, a singer like Ida Cox, who sang with the distinctive nasal sound of St. Louis, would only have influenced people in her immediate vicinity.

One fan recalled, "She had a great big booming strong voice that belted -- not rough, but strong. If Ida Cox didn't get you, you couldn't get got!"

Once she began to work with the traveling shows, her style and her songs were heard and copied by many more people.

Traveling and working together, individual performers adapted each other's styles and songs and collectively created the "classic" blues.

Danny Barker
on Ida Cox:

"When you ran a show and a group of people were depending on you for a living, you had to be a fighter, a scientist, a banker you had to take responsibility. And she did."

Ida Cox made and managed her own career. On stage, she performed with an easy spirit and humor. Backstage, she negotiated deals, met the payroll for the 20 performers in her show, and booked her act herself in the next town on the road -- week after week.

4. 1907-1920 -- The Great Migration... Alberta Hunter... the Northern Clubs

 "I am well and thankful to say I'm doing well. I work in Swift's Packing Co. in the sausage department... We get $1.50 a day... Tell your husband work is so plentiful here..."

From Letters of Negro Migrants, l9l6-1918
Journal of Negro History No. 4, Washington, October 1919

Upon the outbreak of World War I in 1914, America's immigration from Europe slackened while heavy industry was booming. African Americans saw the opportunity for work at wages much higher than they were used to, and packed up their belongings and moved.

 Danny Barker on the Great Migration:

"There was a big demand for steel-driving men and strong-backed women to come North and work in the mills and factories. The automobile industry was begging for help -- Detroit, Gary Indiana, Cleveland, Cincinnati -- 'Come North, we need workers.' And that's where the southerners went, because the pay was better and it was a different environment for black people.

"When you went to Chicago, you went above the line where there was less pressure on you. You could walk tall and walk free. Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit -- you went North."

From "Wild Women Don't Have the Blues"

This period witnessed the massive migration of Southern blacks to Northern industrial cities. From the eastern part of the South they traveled to New York and Philadelphia; from the central Deep South they rode the train lines to Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland. Between 1910 and 1920, 60,000 black Americans migrated from the South to the city of Chicago alone.

While Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Ida Cox toured the Southern Circuit, other blues women joined the migration northward and were soon playing in the big-city clubs and cabarets. In 1907 Alberta Hunter, age 12, ran away from her home in Memphis, having heard that she could make $10 a week singing in Chicago.

"They took the braids out of my hair and put me in dresses to make me look older. Right away, I sent my mother two dollars so she'd know where I was. I hadn't been there very long when I started sneaking out to... a sporting bar, and when I tried to sing they told me to get out. But they finally gave me a chance, and I worked there a year and ten months... for five dollars a week. I learned songs from the piano player like 'Melancholy,' which became known as 'Melancholy Baby.'"

Throughout a decade, a generation of classic blues singers and jazz musicians poured into the North. Lucille Hegamin arrived in Chicago in 1914 and Bertha "Chippie" Hill (age 15) left Charleston for New York in 1915. Ethel Waters started singing in her home town of Chester, Pennsylvania, and by 1919 was playing the New York City club scene.

Chicago especially was a magnet for many of the future great blues musicians -- Big Bill Broonzy, Georgia Tom Dorsey and Tampa Red (both of whom were to work closely with Ma Rainey), Blind Lemon Jefferson, jazz pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong, Lovie Austin and many others.

By the 1920's Chicago would be in the center of the jazz age with more and more of the great names playing and recording there -- King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Dodds, and Jelly Roll Morton.

Sophisticated Blues

But in cities like Chicago, where newly arrived Southern blacks wanted down-home blues and jazz, entertainers like Alberta Hunter, who sang a broad repertoire of variety entertainment, found that blues numbers went over best.

Singing in the urban atmosphere of the clubs and cabarets, the Northern blues women adopted a more sophisticated "dressed up" blues style, insinuating rather than belting out their songs in Southern tent-show fashion.

Chris Albertson on the new sophistication:

"A good example of a double-entendre song is 'Handy Man,' which Alberta Hunter recorded. Several people recorded it, Ethel Waters included, but Alberta Hunter's rendition is wonderful. It really is just one double-entendre after another, and some of them are very clever. And as she sang it, even in later years, she kept adding new lines to it. It's the kind of song that doesn't stay the same. Nobody really knows who started that song."

Grammy-winning blues producer and historian Chris Albertson is featured in
"Wild Women Don't Have the Blues"

As historian Giles Oakley writes, the blues women "frequently worked with jazz bands which, in contrast to the greater isolation of the male country blues singers, provided a visible display of togetherness. For the new and struggling migrants desperately trying to create a new community in the cities, the singer and her band represented a shared communal feeling."

As with spirituals in the South, down-home humor and bluesy irony now provided a strategy for survival and self-assertion in the new setting:

Now my hair is nappy and I don't wear no clothes of silk,
Now my hair is nappy and I don't wear no clothes of silk,
But the cow that's black and ugly, has often got the sweetest milk.
"Mean Tight Mama"

And, like the blues women in the South, those in the North drew on the manner, style and emotion of the spirituals in their presentation:

 "The blues? Why, the blues are a part of me. They're like a chant. The blues are like spirituals, almost sacred. When we sing blues, we're singing out our hearts, we're singing out our feelings. Maybe we're hurt and just can't answer back, then we sing or maybe even hum the blues. When I sing, 'I walk the floor, wring my hands and cry -- Yes, I walk the floor, wring my hands and cry,'... what I'm doing is letting my soul out."

--Alberta Hunter featured in "Wild Women Don't Have the Blues"

5. The Peak Years -- Recording the Blues, 1920-1931

Performing the blues in the traveling shows of the South and in the Northern clubs, the classic blues women helped to spread and standardize them. Recording the blues for wide distribution multiplied the effect a thousandfold.

On Valentine's Day, 1920, the vaudeville performer Mamie Smith stepped to the acoustical horn in the Okeh Company recording studio, shouted out "That Thing Called Love" for the disc spinning behind the curtain in the next room, and made history.

"That Thing Called Love," the first recording by a black woman vocalist, was not authentic blues, but its immediate success led to a second recording by Mamie Smith, "Crazy Blues." This record -- the first commercial recording of true blues -- sold 75,000 copies in the first month and opened the door to national recognition for the entire generation of Classic Blues women performing on the vaudeville, cabaret, and night club circuit.

The phenomenal success of Mamie Smith's first recordings uncovered a whole new market for American recording companies and created a boom in the classic blues.

Companies like Paramount, Columbia and Victor, as well as Okeh, established "race" catalogues, distributed mainly to black communities through record stores in the North and via mail order to the South.

Their scouts combed the countryside for the best talent. It was almost exclusively the classic blues singers who were signed on.

  • In Chicago, Paramount Records signed Alberta Hunter in 1921, then in 1923 both Ma Rainey and Ida Cox.
  • Okeh signed Mamie Smith and later Victoria Spivey, whose "Black Snake Blues" sold 15,000 copies in its first month.
  • Columbia recorded Bessie Smith from 1923 to 1931, and bought out its competitor Okeh in 1926.


The Blues Recorded

OKeh advertises its record catalog in the Chicago Defender in the 1920s: "Here's the greatest talent of the Race -- Sara Martin, the moanin' blues mamma; Sippie Wallace, the Texas nightingale; Clarence Williams, the ivories tickler; Eva Taylor, a sweet blues warbler, and a whole flock of others..."

The year 1920 marked the beginning of the blues recording craze and the start of the Prohibition years. It was the Jazz Age of flappers, speakeasies and a general readjustment of American mores. During the next ten years the vogue for jazz flourished and the songs, dances and humor of black culture surfaced to answer America's demand for entertainment.

The blues women set a pace to match the times.

Bessie Smith, whose style was more broadly accessible than Ma Rainey's rural downhome blues, took the popular lead. Criss-crossing the country, she played the Club "81" in Atlanta, the Standard Theatre in Philadelphia, and the Paradise Garden in Atlantic City where flappers and collegians poured in looking for the hot music.

Bessie recorded 180 songs, choosing first-rate accompanists like the young Louis Armstrong, Fred Longshaw, James P. Johnson and Coleman Hawkins. She became the biggest-selling blues artist of the period. Through the rural South to the urban North, on phonograph records and on the Broadway stage, Bessie reached an enormous audience.

How Blue Lu Barker learned to sing the blues...

"I learned the blues off of records. My mother used to buy Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, all these blues songs, because she liked to sing. And I would sing with her. And we had one of these old Graphonolas that you wind up. So, if we were cleaning house, and we were in the bedroom, we'd bring it with us there. If we were outside washing the clothes, we'd bring it there. So I heard these records and I'd sing along with mamma -- that's how I learned to sing the blues."

Blue Lu is featured in "Wild Women Don't Have the Blues"

Ida Cox, Mamie Smith, Rosa Henderson, and Alberta Hunter followed a similar route.

6. The Legacy of the Classic Blues

As the Depression gripped the country at the opening of a new decade, the peak years of popularity for the Classic Blues singers wound down.

The lives of the individual women took different paths out of the 1920s.

But the immense popularity of their work during the 1920s left a legacy whose importance continues today.

The ability of the Classic Blues women to bring songs, music and images from black life to the public stage and to put them on records introduced black culture to the broader culture on a comparatively massive scale for the first time.

Their successful recording careers brought a permanence to forms and styles of blues songs that previously had been improvised and ephemeral.

Their popularity in the segregated clubs of the North encouraged the spread of jazz and the sound of the great jazz musicians who accompanied them, and their influence on white blues and jazz vocalists is irrefutable.

Their very presence as celebrities on a public stage brought inspiration to black audiences and gave deeper meaning to their individual success.

The End

"Where can I get 'Wild Women Don't Have the Blues'?"

Students! You have our permission to quote from (not copy from) this page provided that you acknowledge it in your bibliography as follows:

Calliope Film Resources. "The Classic Blues and the Women Who Sang Them." Copyright 2000 CFR. . [And add the date on which you visited this web page.] 

Teachers! The Blues illustrate important points about American popular culture and African American history. Use the one-hour video from Calliope along with this Fact Sheet to enhance your curriculum.

A Brief Bibliography

"Wild Women Don't Have the Blues" was inspired from unforgettable interviews with performers and those who knew them… innumerable beautiful recordings… and many thoughtful biographies and studies of the blues, including the following:

Albertson, Chris. Bessie. New York, 1972.
Barker, Danny. A Life in Jazz. New York, 1986.
Epstein, Dena J. Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War. Chicago, 1977.
Ferris, William. Blues from the Delta. New York, 1979.
Hammond, John. John Hammond on Record: An Autobiography. New York, 1977.
Jones, LeRoi. Blues People: The Negro Experience in White America and the Music that Developed from it. New York, 1963.
Lieb, Sandra R. Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey. Amherst MA, 1981.
Murray, Albert. Stomping the Blues. New York, 1982.
Oliver, Paul. The Meaning of the Blues. New York, 1960.
Taylor, Frank C. Alberta Hunter: A Celebration in Blues. New York, 1986.
Titon, Jeff Todd. Early Downhome Blues: A Musical and Cultural Analysis. Chicago, 1977.

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Updated Jan 1 2009
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