Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday
Angela Davis
Pantheon, $27.50

One of Bessie Smith’s more obscure songs, “Black Mountain Blues,” describes that imaginary yet familiar place where everything is upside-down:

Back in Black Mountain, a child will smack your face
Back in Black Mountain, a child will smack your face
Babies cryin’ for liquor, and all the birds sing bass.

Judging by her tone of voice, both matter-of-fact and anguished, Black Mountain is a place Smith knows well: it is her own country, not exactly America, but a land where injustice is law, where destructive appetites rule, and where the conventions of nature are accorded no special privilege, especially when it comes to music. Might Smith herself-fat, sexy, loud, violent, popular, ignored, and suppliant all at once-be the bird who sings bass?

The possibility that Bessie Smith might find a way to be both resident and observer of Black Mountain-to be both in and out of the game, as Walt Whitman put it-is something that Angela Davis’s study of Smith, “Ma” Rainey, and Billie Holiday never addresses, never imagines; an inexplicable lapse, given that she transcribed the lyrics of 252 of these remarkable, unpredictable, stunningly beautiful songs in the course of her research. The pioneering female blues singers are certainly a natural subject for Davis, a professor of the history of consciousness who is best known for her radical politics. Sadly, the writer who became famous for insisting in Women, Race, and Class that the divisions that haunt American culture are not only related but self-reinforcing is determined to contort these songs, and the life stories of their singers, to serve a political agenda that is as rigid, predictable, lifeless, and forbidding as the “patriarchal ideology,” the “dominant culture,” the “masculinist discourse” that stalk these pages. To borrow a phrase from Ralph Ellison, it’s enough to give the blues the blues!

The recent rise of scholarly interest in African-American vernacular music has largely focused on jazz rather than blues, perhaps because the blues seems so simple and accessible, both thematically and musically. As a result, readers interested in the blues have had to turn to older, more general studies-by Gunther Schuller, Eileen Southernand Robert Palmer, among others, scholars whose close yet deep readings bring out the ways in which words and tones express culture and history. Palmer’s Deep Blues in particular demonstrates how individual lyrics exemplify the peculiar negotiation that the blues undertakes between Africa and America. Davis has availed herself of these studies, especially in her introduction, which explains the historical setting for the birth of the blues-detailing how emancipation, which offered blacks the twin freedoms of independent travel and marriage, made the blues the essential African-American art form.

That Davis’s overview has little to offer the experienced reader or listener would be acceptable if she weren’t also playing historian. Consider her claim-it is really a kind of wish fulfillment-that “Strange Fruit,” Billie Holiday’s anti-lynching ballad, “almost singlehandedly changed the politics of American popular culture.” What support, beyond her insistent polemic, might she bring to this notion? Record sales? Cover versions by other musicians? Reviews? Memoirs? Other histories? Davis simply refuses to let the historical evidence get in the way of the political program. In a way, such an approach has a kind of logic: Davis repeatedly claims that events are important because they serve as prelude or postlude to later or earlier events whose importance is also never identified or discussed. Take, for example, Bessie Smith’s bold indictment of poverty in “Poor Man’s Blues”:

Please, listen to my pleading, ’cause I can’t stand these hard times long
Oh, listen to my pleading, can’t stand these hard times long
They’ll make an honest man do things that you know is wrong.

For Davis such lyrics are significantly largely as “historical preparation” for the Civil Rights movement, and for serving as “ancestor of the social protest movement genre in black popular music.” Something similar happens in her reading of Ma Rainey’s advice in “Trust No Man”:

I want all you women to listen to me
Don’t trust your man no further than your eyes can see
I trusted mine with my best friend
But that was the bad part in the end.

This song matters, according to Davis, not because of the way in which the singer resists letting gender dictate her view of the world and its inhabitants, but because it predicts and pre-affirms the insights of sixties-era consciousness-raising groups. Never in this study are these songs independently valid works of art, or even, God forbid, good music.

When Davis does gesture at the facts, an obsession with race often gets in the way. She claims that “black women were the first to record the blues,” but that achievement belongs to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, a group of white jazz enthusiasts who made “Livery Stable Blues” in 1917, a full three years before Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues.” Of course, no one today would mistake “Livery Stable Blues” for an authentic blues-or even good music. But is it not worth speculating about a musical culture in which the first “authentic” version of a genre is also an act of repossession from the first documented appearance, which was billed as the original? Clearly, musical and racial authenticity in America do not always align themselves in the tidy ways that racists of every stripe wish they would, an insight unavailable to those who write history only in black and white.

For that matter, Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues,” which Davis claims was the first blues recording, was not even a real blues-it more resembled the kind of vaudeville tune popular among both blacks and whites at the time. Moreover, the musicians backing Smith were all jazz musicians, and even Smith herself was billed on the record as “Mamie Smith, contralto.” If Davis misses all this, is it any wonder that she passes over Smith’s first recording, “That Thing Called Love,” which happened only because the Jewish vaudevillian Sophie Tucker was unable to make the date? Integrating the full history of the birth of the blues into such a study would require recognizing the way many different races, ethnicities, languages, and musical styles operate in American popular culture. Not even the most marginalized of groups is ever silenced. They may be unnoticed, but their voices exist.

Captive to reductive binaries-white and black, freedom and slavery, male and female, rich and working class, religious and secular, Europe and Africa, dominant culture and marginal culture, victor and victim-Davis seems determined to carry out an agenda that simply inverts that of the “savvy white men” on whom everything can be blamed. Davis takes umbrage at the paternalistic tendencies of critics like Samuel Charters and Paul Oliver, but this book rarely treats blues singers as anything more than former victims. Hardly a paragraph goes by without the passive voice bearing the burden of the argument: these singers are considered, commodified, belittled, misconstrued, gendered, raced, and classed by Davis almost into grammatical oblivion. Everywhere, she applauds the “complexity” of the blues imagination, but the reader never learns exactly what that means.

Consider Davis’s interpretation of “Lover, Come Back to Me”: “Lover, please stay away– I am immensely enjoying this state of freedom from the vagaries of love constructed according to male dominance.” Such obtuseness is by no means unique. Bessie Smith’s “Yodeling Blues,” in which the singer plans to “yodel my blues away (YEE HOO!)” becomes an instance of “enacting the potential convergence of the aesthetic dimension with psychosocial reality.” Yet Davis seems uninterested in the realities of Ma Rainey’s “Down in the Basement”:

I’ve got a man, a piano hound
Plays anything that’s going around
When he plays that highbrow stuff
I shout, “Brother, that’s enough!”

Take me to the basement, that’s as low as I can go
I want something low down, daddy, want it nice and slow
I can shimmy from A to Z, if you’ll play that thing for me
Take me to the basement, that’s as low as I can go.

Davis is no doubt correct to remark on the challenge to highbrow culture here, but to see the song as simply “contesting dominant assumptions about the inferiority of the blues, as well as the ideologically constructed inferiority of black people” seems a comic-or is it tragic?-example of what happens when theory never loosens its grip.

Given Davis’s almost total lack of respect for the particulars of these lyrics, and for the intelligence of her readers– she never says drunkenness when she can say “experience with alcohol,” never says “music” when she can say “aesthetically mediated community-building,” never says “life” when she can say “reality oriented dimension”-what a surprise and a pleasure and an edification it is to be able to dip into the majestically ground-level insights, the exquisitely wrought commonplaces of the lyrics themselves. However parochial her own views-Davis claims to hold “the key” to understanding the blues and African-American culture in general-she has been generous (and hard-working) enough to offer her readers what it takes to make up their own minds, or better yet, to remain confused. Following subject with object this way is a stroke of genius that is obvious but rare and unexpected. The gesture ironically constitutes Davis’s clearest example of the kind of invitation to danger and salvation that makes the blues the blues.