The image of the blues as a man hunched over his acoustic guitar in the Mississippi Delta--or, alternately, hunched over his electric axe or harmonica as he moans into a microphone at a sweaty club--is so ingrained in the collective consciousness that it comes as a shock to many to learn that the first blues stars were women. Indeed, women dominated the recorded blues field in the 1920s, the first decade in which a market for blues records existed. Except for the very most famous of these singers, these pioneers are largely forgotten today, having been retroactively surpassed in popularity by some Southern bluesmen who only recorded a precious handful of sides in the '20s and '30s. But these women were the performers who first took blues to a national audience.
The popularity of the early blueswomen was intimately tied to the birth of the recording industry itself. There were many kinds of nascent blues on the rise in the early 20th century-Delta guitarists, yes, but also songsters, jug bands, and dance bands that employed elements of jazz, blues, and pop. And there was the vaudeville stage circuit, which frequently featured women singers. Presenting productions that toured widely, the musicians involved couldn't helped but be exposed to blues forms, if they hadn't been already.
It so happened that female-sung blues, with a prominent vaudeville-jazz-pop flavor, was the first kind of blues to be recorded for the popular audience. There are many possible reasons for this. Perhaps the record companies felt that other styles of blues were too raw to market. Or they may have been largely unaware of more rural and Southern blues styles. The female vaudevillian blues singers had a jazzier and more urban sound that commercial companies may have been more likely to encounter and stamp with approval.
What's far more certain is that "Crazy Blues," recorded by Mamie Smith in 1920, was the first commercial recording of what came to be recognized as the blues. By the standards of the day, the record was a phenomenal success, selling 75,000 copies within the first month--in an era, it must be remembered, when much of the U.S. population, and an even higher percentage of the U.S. African-American population, didn't own a record player. It set off an immediate storm of records in the same vein, by Smith and numerous other women.
But to today's listener, "Crazy Blues" hardly sounds like a blues at all. It sounds more like vaudeville, with a bit of the blues creeping into the edges of the vocal delivery and the song structure. The more judgemental might find that it resembles the music found in contemporary Broadway productions that offer a nostalgic facsimile of pre-Depression Black theater. The song has to be taken in the context of its era, however. It was the first time anything with some allegiance to the blues form had been recorded--and the industry quickly found that such productions were being bought not just by Blacks, but by all Americans.
Mamie Smith's success opened the floodgates for numerous blueswomen to record in the 1920s, often on the OKeh and Paramount labels. Ida Cox, Sippie Wallace, Victoria Spivey, Lucille Bogan, Ethel Waters, and Alberta Hunter are some of the most famous; there were many others. The best of them were Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, both of whom had rawer, more emotional qualities that gives their recordings a feel more akin to what later listeners expect of the blues.
Today, the early recordings by the "classic" female blues singers, as they have sometimes been labeled, sound as much or more like jazz as blues. The vocalists were usually accompanied by small jazz combos, often featuring piano, cornet, and other horn instruments. The guitar, the instrument associated with the blues more than any other, was frequently absent, and usually secondary when it was used. Lots of early jazz stars, in fact, can be heard on the early blueswomen's records, including Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Duke Ellington, and Coleman Hawkins.
Yet the music is identifiable as blues, primarily via the vocal phrasing and the widespread use of the 12-bar song structures that are among the blues' most immediate trademarks. And it was not a form that thrived in isolation from the other styles of blues that were emerging throughout America. As top blues scholar Samuel Charters writes in his liner notes to Blues Masters Volume 11: Classic Blues Women, "Even the men living in the South and playing the blues for themselves and their neighbors learned many of their songs from the records that made their way down to local music stores or came through the post office from the mail-order blues companies in Chicago. If they didn't learn the songs themselves, they learned the form and the style of what the record companies thought of as the blues.
"So when the companies sent scouts to find new artists in the South, what they found were the same three or four ways of putting blues verses together. After the sweeping success of the first recordings by women blues artists, the 12-bar harmonic form on the records had become so ubiquitous that even the Delta players who only fingered a single chord on their guitars managed to suggest all the usual chord changes with their singing."
The blues could also be heard in the singers' frank discussions of topics like sex, infidelity, and money and drink problems, often with a palpable hurt. These were offered with a female perspective that has never been as widespread in the blues since, as the music came to be dominated by male performers after the Depression. Listeners from all eras can cut through the often scratchy recordings to find the seeds of the blues, and much modern pop music, in their depiction of hard times, and the struggle and endurance necessary to survive them. It's not all bleakness--the celebratory tunes could have a frank bawdiness, particularly when dealing with sexual double entendres, that would probably generate warning stickers if they were being purchased by today's teenagers.
The onset of the Depression meant hard times for the record business, as it did for every other industry. The craze for female blues singers, which may have already peaked in the mid'20s, was over, and not just because of artistic trends. Record labels in general were recording less sides. And they weren't eager to devote a lot of resources to the "race" market, populated as it was by the poorest Americans. These African American listeners would have even less purchasing power in the 1930s, as the Depression lowered their already low standard of living.
But it wasn't just economic factors that heralded the demise of the classic women blues singers. Urban African-American music was becoming more uptempo and elaborate. The swing and big band sound came to fruition in the 1930s, making the staider accompaniment common to many '20s female blues recordings sound tame in comparison. And the vaudeville/theatrical circuit that supported the singers was crumbling, threatening their livelihood just years after they enjoyed positively unimaginable wealth (by the standards of African-Americans of the '20s). Many were unable to make records or, after a few years, even perform; the tale of Mamie Smith, who died penniless in 1946, is unfortunately not unique. Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey would themselves be dead by 1940.
It may be that many of the women who would have been blues singers had they started in the 1920s ended up as jazz ones. Jazz as a whole proved much more fruitful for women singers fronting a band than blues would in the ensuing decades. Billie Holiday, acclaimed by many as one of the finest singers of any kind in the 20th century, certainly owed a great deal to the female blues vocalists of the '20s. Several of her earlier sides in particular could just as well be classified as blues as jazz. The blues feel remained prominent in many if not most of the major female jazz singers, from Dinah Washington to Cassandra Wilson.
The original female blues stars of the '20s didn't always disappear entirely. Alberta Hunter, for instance, if anything became more popular after the 1920s, and made an unexpectedly successful comeback as a senior citizen in the 1970s and 1980s, after about 25 years of retirement. Ethel Waters expanded into jazz, and then into movies, getting an Academy Award nominiation for Best Supporting Actress for a 1949 film. Victoria Spivey, returning to active recording in the 1960s, started her own label; Bob Dylan made his first appearance on an official recording for the company, playing harmonica on a Big Joe Williams session.
The blues revival of the 1960s, however, largely passed the classic female blues singers by, though Sippie Wallace did record an album with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. The vocalists were a considerable influence on pioneering '60s rock singers Janis Joplin and Tracy Nelson (who recorded an entire album of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith songs in her folkie days), thereby influencing rock performers who had never heard the originals. In any case, the styles that the early women blues singers brought to record had by then infiltrated all of blues, rock, soul, and pop, to be heard in almost everyone from Aretha Franklin on down.
10 Recommended Albums:
Various Artists, Blues Masters, Vol. 11: Classic Blues Women (Rhino)
Bessie Smith, The Collection (CBS)
Ma Rainey, Ma Rainey (Milestone)
Sippie Wallace, 1923-29 (Alligator)
Victoria Spivey, 1926-31 (Document)
Mamie Smith, In Chronological Order, Vol. 1 (Document)
Lucille Bogan, 1923-35 (Story of Blues)
Alberta Hunter, Young Alberta Hunter (Vintage Jazz)
Ethel Waters, Jazzin' Babies' Blues, 1921-1927 (Biograph)
Various Artists, Women's Railroad Blues: Sorry But I Can't Take You (Rosetta)
by Richie Unterberger