Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday
This book jacket’s inner flap tells the story: “Through a close and riveting analysis of these artists’ performances, words, and lives, Davis [a professor of History of Consciousness at UC, Santa Cruz] uncovers the unmistakable assertion and uncomprimising celebration of non-middle-class, non-heterosexual social, moral and sexual values.” In her introduction Davis writes: “[The book] is an inquiry into the ways their recorded performances divulge unacknowledged traditions of feminist consciousness in working-class black communities.” Many of the following 200-plus pages are full of similar academic mumbo jumbo and such phrases as “quotidian expressions of feminist consciousness” (that word again), “‘Afrocentric feminist espitemology’” and “fissures of patriarchal discourses” will either inform or stupify.
Davis includes the lyrics to all of Rainey’s and Smith’s recordings—90 and 160, respectively—and links common themes by chapter. In “Here Comes My Train, Traveling Themes and Women’s Blues,” she iterates one of her main points, that after Emanicipation, “sexuality and travel provided the most tangible evidence of freedom.” Only two of the eight chapters are devoted to Holiday. After examining dozens of no-good-man songs by Rainey and Smith, and one overtly lesbian song by Rainey—“Prove It on Me Blues”—Davis suggests that in Lady Day’s 1944 recording of “Lover Come Back to Me” she’s really saying “Lover, please stay away—I am immensely enjoying this state of freedom from the vagaries of love constructed according to male dominance.” Oh. I daresay that black middle-class women to whom Rainey and Smith directed their songs would be as nonplussed as I am after wading through this book.