Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday – Angela Y. Davis

This was a very informative book about the much-overlooked impact of blues music on American culture and feminism. It’s definitely not a light read; Davis thoroughly researched her material and it’s hard to read this book in large chunks as the tone of the book is quite academic.

The book looks into the musical careers of Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holliday; three African-American singers whose music “…gave musical expression to the new social and sexual realities encountered by African-Americans as free women and men.” The book talks about how candid female blues artists were about domestic violence, sexuality, alcohol use, adultery, failed love, death etc. In many cases, these topics had never been portrayed in popular music before. Additionally, blues music depicted women as strong and showed them not having to conform to the traditional roles in society. If one considers that this music was being performed as early as in the 1920s it’s quite clear how progressive it was.

The most fascinating part for me was how blues music was also, in some cases, protest music. The example that epitomizes this is Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit”, which I was surprised to learn, was about lynching.

The book is over 400 pages but the latter half of the book consists of song lyrics so this big book is not as scary as it looks.

A must for blues fans.


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