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From one of this country's most important intellectuals comes a brilliant analysis of the blues tradition that examines the careers of three crucial black women blues singers through a feminist lens. Angela Davis provides the historical, social, and political contexts with which to reinterpret the performances and lyrics of Gertrude Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holi From one of this country's most important intellectuals comes a brilliant analysis of the blues tradition that examines the careers of three crucial black women blues singers through a feminist lens. Angela Davis provides the historical, social, and political contexts with which to reinterpret the performances and lyrics of Gertrude Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday as powerful articulations of an alternative consciousness profoundly at odds with mainstream American culture. The works of Rainey, Smith, and Holiday have been largely misunderstood by critics. Overlooked, Davis shows, has been the way their candor and bravado laid the groundwork for an aesthetic that allowed for the celebration of social, moral, and sexual values outside the constraints imposed by middle-class respectability. Through meticulous transcriptions of all the extant lyrics of Rainey and Smith--published here in their entirety for the first time--Davis demonstrates how the roots of the blues extend beyond a musical tradition to serve as a conciousness-raising vehicle for American social memory. A stunning, indispensable contribution to American history, as boldly insightful as the women Davis praises, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism is a triumph.


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From one of this country's most important intellectuals comes a brilliant analysis of the blues tradition that examines the careers of three crucial black women blues singers through a feminist lens. Angela Davis provides the historical, social, and political contexts with which to reinterpret the performances and lyrics of Gertrude Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holi From one of this country's most important intellectuals comes a brilliant analysis of the blues tradition that examines the careers of three crucial black women blues singers through a feminist lens. Angela Davis provides the historical, social, and political contexts with which to reinterpret the performances and lyrics of Gertrude Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday as powerful articulations of an alternative consciousness profoundly at odds with mainstream American culture. The works of Rainey, Smith, and Holiday have been largely misunderstood by critics. Overlooked, Davis shows, has been the way their candor and bravado laid the groundwork for an aesthetic that allowed for the celebration of social, moral, and sexual values outside the constraints imposed by middle-class respectability. Through meticulous transcriptions of all the extant lyrics of Rainey and Smith--published here in their entirety for the first time--Davis demonstrates how the roots of the blues extend beyond a musical tradition to serve as a conciousness-raising vehicle for American social memory. A stunning, indispensable contribution to American history, as boldly insightful as the women Davis praises, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism is a triumph.

30 review for Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday

  1. 4 out of 5

    Rowena

    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 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 latter half of the book consists of song lyrics so this big book is not as scary as it looks.

  2. 4 out of 5

    El

    I thought I was only halfway through the book, but then it was over. The second half of the book are the lyrics to the songs recorded by the three singers (Rainey, Smith, and Holiday) and then Notes. That was a startling ending is all I am sayin. If you do a quick Wikipedia search for "blues music", as I just did, you will find the page filled with at least 11 pictures of male blues artists like John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Eric Clapton. Some other people, too, but only three of the I thought I was only halfway through the book, but then it was over. The second half of the book are the lyrics to the songs recorded by the three singers (Rainey, Smith, and Holiday) and then Notes. That was a startling ending is all I am sayin. If you do a quick Wikipedia search for "blues music", as I just did, you will find the page filled with at least 11 pictures of male blues artists like John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Eric Clapton. Some other people, too, but only three of the images feature female blues performers over the years. This isn't surprisingly, necessarily, and of course it's ridiculous to use Wikipedia as "proof" of anything, but it is still disappointing that women's role in blues music is still almost entirely ignored. Angela Davis had an issue with that too, and that's how this book came about. Her focus is on Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and of course, Billie Holiday, though the most in-depth exploration was on the music of Rainey and Smith. One could argue that everyone knows about Billie Holiday, so there's less that needs to be said. But I still felt more could have been included. The book isn't just about the women, however, and that was a relief to me. As with any artist, it's difficult to discuss the art without discussing the artist, but Davis wanted to discuss the feminism behind the music. I have heard it argued that blues music is not feminist: it cannot be, it's all about women being beat by their boyfriends. Davis argues that it's this storytelling that made these singers and their songs feminist after all. Their songs brought their stories (common stories, so whether or not they were their specific stories, they were stories that people recognized and could relate to) into the public sphere. People like to think of domestic violence as a private sphere kind of thing, like what happens in the home stays in the home, don't air your dirty laundry, etc. etc. whatever else people like to say to be able to do whatever they want to their lady-friends because women are property. For these women to sing about being beaten by their partners in an open way brought it out into the public for the public to discuss, contemplate, whatever. Suddenly it was something that was out there, not just being kept hush-hush. Regardless of how it seemed the females in these songs seem to feel about their place in life, just the presentation of this world that women live in was rather groundbreaking. In addition to domestic violence, Davis discusses on other themes that showed up in blues music from these singers: domesticity, sexuality, spirituality, politics, and protest. One should remember the context when reading the lyrics to the music, that slavery never really ended and that is what these singers expressed in their songs, that the form of slavery has changed, but it's still slavery, something we're still good to remember today if we pay the fuck attention. At the time Bessie Smith's 1927 song Backwater Blues was released, the Mississippi River flooded its banks: "Twenty-six thousand square miles of land were inundated, causing over 600,000 people, more than half of whom were black, to lose their homes." (p109) Davis went on to write: The seasonal rains causing the Mississippi River to flood its banks are part of the unalterable course of nature, but the sufferings of untold numbers of black people who lived in towns and the countryside along the river also were attributable to racism. Black people were often considered expendable, and their communities were forced to take the overflow of backwaters in order to reduce the pressure on the levees. While most white people remained safe, black people suffered the wrath of the Mississippi, nature itself having been turned into a formidable weapon of racism. (p109) Hm. Sound familiar? That was in 1927, and yet it sounds to what is happening in 2017 in various places. "While relief services were free to white victims, black victims were often informed that they would have to pay cash for food and other necessities. Destitute, they were forced to take loans from plantation owners, who later forced them to work off their alleged debt." (p109-10) This was the world Bessie Smith lived in, and the world she sang about. Again, these were topics that were often silenced or not openly discussed, and for any of these artists to sing about these injustices were allowing people to look at the issues instead of simply turning their heads. I found this book incredibly eye-opening. I had listened to all of these women sing, but listening to them again alongside Davis's text is helpful. Listen to their voices, listen to their words, and really understand what they were saying. It's not always as obvious as it might appear at first listen.

  3. 4 out of 5

    shakespeareandspice

    Review originally posted on A Skeptical Reader. Classic blues comprised an important elaboration of black working-class social consciousness…[it] also foreshadowed a brand of protest that refused to privilege racism over sexism, or the conventional public realm over the private as the preeminent domain of power (42). Blues Legacies and Black Feminism is a nonfiction book that explores the themes of Blues music and its historical importance in black women’s feminism during the early 20th centur Review originally posted on A Skeptical Reader. Classic blues comprised an important elaboration of black working-class social consciousness…[it] also foreshadowed a brand of protest that refused to privilege racism over sexism, or the conventional public realm over the private as the preeminent domain of power (42). Blues Legacies and Black Feminism is a nonfiction book that explores the themes of Blues music and its historical importance in black women’s feminism during the early 20th century. Angela Davis tackles the broader struggles within the Black community through the lens of Gertrude Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday’s music. Upon first glance this may seem like a book one might pick up only if you have a fondness for music already but I’d argue this book has a lot more to offer for those of us who either don’t care about music or simply don’t care about Blues. Angela Davis brilliantly illustrates how Blues music has played an incredible role in defining American culture and music industry and offers us a very rare and beautiful glimpse into this history. Though we might initially consider Blues as simply a form of expression for black women to rejoice in romance or mourn over their companions, Davis argues, Women’s blues cannot be understood apart from their role in the modeling of an emotional community based on the affirmation of black people's—and in particular black women's—absolute and irreducible humanity. The blues woman challenges in her own way the imposition of gender-based inferiority (36). Themes of discourse range from sexuality and domestic violence to political activism and self-consciousness. Blues became a source of salvation that neither the people within nor the people outside the community allowed women. With its roots embedded in slave music, Blues came to directly challenge the identity of Blacks in America. It helped the Black woman emerge as an individual, a woman of her own with her own identity, and this caused friction not just amongst the dominant, ‘civilized’ white culture but also amongst themselves. In more than one space, Davis explains the threat of Blues as seen by some, Blues was threatening because its spokesmen and its ritual too frequently provided the expressive communal channels of relief that had been largely the province of religion in the past (8-9). Belitted and misconstrued by the dominant culture that has been incapable of deciphering the secrets of her art, she has been ignored and denounced in African-American middle-class circles and repudiated by the most authoritative institution in her own community, the church (124). While there were Black women themselves who feared this secular rebellion, Blues also became an entity that Black women could finally relate to beyond the patriarchal structure. Angela Davis exposes the various strings of freedom that Black women straddled with their music. A need to travel after having been confined in chains for hundreds of years, the urge to break free of male companionship, and to find her own voice in the imposing confines of church and community. With Blues, Black women found a voice and it was loud, bold, and brazenly feminist. Trust me, this is not a book that should be dismissed as exclusive for Blues listeners. It remains central to every conversation about feminism today.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Lauren

    WARNING: Will turn you into a rabid blues addict.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Laura

    I read this book back in 2010--and it blew my mind. As a white person, I had grown up thinking of Angela Davis as a Communist and a member of the Black Panther party, both which are true. Both of which are still in the #verybad column by white people. She was acquitted in federal court, but the court of public memory is long. Suffice it to say, I didn't have the full picture of her background. I would label this book my first REAL experience with intersectional feminism. I bought this book in Ci I read this book back in 2010--and it blew my mind. As a white person, I had grown up thinking of Angela Davis as a Communist and a member of the Black Panther party, both which are true. Both of which are still in the #verybad column by white people. She was acquitted in federal court, but the court of public memory is long. Suffice it to say, I didn't have the full picture of her background. I would label this book my first REAL experience with intersectional feminism. I bought this book in City Lights in San Francisco on a work trip. It was in the basement, and I remember seeing Angela Davis' name and Billie Holiday's face. Once upon a time at my very white, very privileged private college, I had gotten into an argument with my poetry professor about "Strange Fruit," which I wanted to write a paper and presentation on. You see, the famously dark and unforgettable song was a poem first. And it was written by a guy who a Communist (at the time). I wasn't allowed to present the poem for discussion because of the political nature. Go figure. So here was a book written by a Communist on an art form I loved: the blues. I was familiar with Bessie Smith because one of my favorite artist Cat Russell would cover her songs in concert, specifically Kitchen Man. I had heard about Ma Rainey, but I didn't know her work. I read the entire book on the flight home, and immediately proceeded to rethink WHY I love the blues, WHY I feel drawn to these messages, and most importantly, how my false narrative of this art form could possibly be drowning out my ability to learn. I did a lot of listening to blues over the next few years. Davis includes some of the music in the book, and it is an archive of the soul of a century pushing change. Black women have been pushing change with their voices, with their language, with their minds, and we need to remember that. In her writing, Davis is forceful and aggressive, but not without reason. She presents a case, and she won me over. I ended up learning more about the Black Panther party and the Communist party in the US. The same fight being fought in the 1970s (the process of rapid change) is happening again, 40 years later. There are few books I've been more changed by. Tonight, I will be in her presence at the 2017 Inaugural Peace Ball hosted by Busboys & Poets. Beyond the rest of the celebrities, I believe her voice will speak the most to me. I will try not to be the white person who wants to thank her for opening her eyes to intersectional feminism. I will try.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Kat

    I devoured this like candy. Davis delineates a complex analysis of the work of the early blueswomen in relationship to gender and class issues in the African-American community in the decades following slavery. She grounds Ma Rainey's and Bessie Smith's songs and performances in historical context, considering their roots in the musical and socioeconomic history of slavery, as well as looking at ways in which they foreshadowed the political developments of the '60s and '70s. I could have done wit I devoured this like candy. Davis delineates a complex analysis of the work of the early blueswomen in relationship to gender and class issues in the African-American community in the decades following slavery. She grounds Ma Rainey's and Bessie Smith's songs and performances in historical context, considering their roots in the musical and socioeconomic history of slavery, as well as looking at ways in which they foreshadowed the political developments of the '60s and '70s. I could have done without the chapters on Billie Holiday. Davis' main argument about Holiday, that her banal love songs constitute social critique due to the subtleties of her vocal style, is groundless without a technical analysis of the music which Davis is unequipped to provide. She attempts to fill in the gaps with rapturous, schoolgirlish passages about Holiday's "genius." Oh well.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Maya B

    This was a very interesting read. This book focused on the lyrics to 3 blues legends. The review of the songs makes you want to listen to their music as you read. The only thing that was missing was that Davis did not give any information on the personal lives of these artists. I recommend this book to anyone that is a fan of the blues. The author's writing is only 197 pages. The rest of the book are lyrics to songs This was a very interesting read. This book focused on the lyrics to 3 blues legends. The review of the songs makes you want to listen to their music as you read. The only thing that was missing was that Davis did not give any information on the personal lives of these artists. I recommend this book to anyone that is a fan of the blues. The author's writing is only 197 pages. The rest of the book are lyrics to songs

  8. 4 out of 5

    tENTATIVELY, cONVENIENCE

    This review is a short version made to fit GoodReads' character limits. I strongly suggest that the reader read the FULL review under my profile's writing: http://www.goodreads.com/story/show/2... I've 'known' of Davis for decades as a black radical who was persecuted by then-Governor-Reagan &, like any black radical, the FBI. I've always been impressed by her as someone who managed to not get killed, someone who stuck out this racist insanity & who also managed to be a university professor. I ex This review is a short version made to fit GoodReads' character limits. I strongly suggest that the reader read the FULL review under my profile's writing: http://www.goodreads.com/story/show/2... I've 'known' of Davis for decades as a black radical who was persecuted by then-Governor-Reagan &, like any black radical, the FBI. I've always been impressed by her as someone who managed to not get killed, someone who stuck out this racist insanity & who also managed to be a university professor. I expected this to be an impassioned study by a person in the thick of things. Instead, it sometimes seems like a hack work written by someone to meet academic requirements. It seems as if it were written in full knowledge that it wd have a guaranteed market, an overpriced market (university bookstores are total ripoffs). While I'd certainly give Davis credit for being an authentic & impassioned politically active person, this bk seems superficial - a niche marketing product if there ever was one - a textbook written to burgeon the literature for Black Studies & Women's Studies - 2 areas that had to be fought tooth & nail for in academia but that're now probably well enuf established so that ditching them wd give academic institutions a bad name. DESPITE THIS, as I look thru it again to write this review, it IS scholarly & I certainly learned from it - despite my taking issue w/ much of the content & w/ its presentation. One of the things that was perhaps most valuable about this bk for me was Davis' explication of how the blues represent a focus on post-slavery freedoms: the freedom to choose one's own sexual partners, the freedom to travel, the freedom of the women blues singers' ability to escape domestic drudgery. These are all points well taken. On the 1st p (p 3) of the 1st chapter (entitled "I Used to be Your Sweet Mama") she begins w/: "Like most forms of popular music, African-American blues lyrics talk about love. What is distinctive about the blues, however, particularly in relation to other American popular musical forms of the 1920s and 1930s, is their intellectual independence and representational freedom. One of the most obvious ways in which blues lyrics deviated from that era's established popular musical culture was their provocative and pervasive sexual - including homosexual - imagery. "By contrast, the popular song formulas of the period demanded saccharine and idealized nonsexual depictions of heterosexual love relationships. Those aspects of lived love relationships that were not compatible with the dominant, etherealized ideology of love - such as extramarital relationships, domestic violence, and the ephemerality of many sexual partnerships - were largely banished from the established popular musical culture. [..]" Now Davis' purpose is to call attn to black feminist content. Her intent is NOT to do a study of music of the era - & I don't get the impression that she's particularly knowledgeable about THAT subject. Alas, this is a recurring weakness of the bk. The 3 women she chooses to focus on (Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, & Billie Holiday) were probably chosen b/c they're 3 of the most well-known figures. They are NOT, however, the women that I wd necessarily choose to represent sexual forthrightness, etc.. & I think that Davis' choices are 'safe' choices - choices that can be referenced in academia w/o causing too much of a scandal b/c of their relation to pop culture & MONEY. Take, eg, "Ma" Rainey's "Shave 'Em Dry": "Shave 'Em Dry" - Gertrude Rainey & William Jackson - 1924 [..] Going downtown to spread the news State Street women wearin' brogan shoes Hey, hey, hey, daddy, let me shave 'em dry If it wasn't for their powder and their store-bought hair State Street gals couldn't go nowhere Hey, hey, hey, daddy, let me shave 'em dry There's one thing I can't understand Some women drivin' State Street like a man Hey, hey, hey, daddy, let me shave 'em dry Went to the show the other night Everybody on State Street was tryin' to fight Hey, hey, hey, daddy, let me shave 'em dry Ain't crazy 'bout my yellow, I ain't wild about my brown You can't tell the difference when the sun goes down Hey, hey, hey, daddy, let me shave 'em dry [..] Now the expression "shave 'em dry" is pretty clearly evocative of rough sex in wch pubic contact is so forcefully grinding that the hair wd be shaved off in the process - but Rainey & William Jackson's version doesn't make this explicit. Despite the sexual content in Rainey's "Shave 'Em Dry", the lyrics are still somewhat encoded in euphemistic language that wd be mostly understood by people sensitive to the culture. Contrarily, Lucille Bogan's (aka Bessie Jackson's) version of "Shave 'Em Dry" (probably recorded 11 yrs later on March 5, 1935) is much more explicit: Here's my transcription from the recording available on the "Copulatin' Blues" LP (STASH ST-101): I got nipples on my titties, big as the end of my thumb, I got somethin' between my legs'll make a dead man cum Aoowooh, daddy, baby won't you shave 'em dry Won't you grind me, baby, grind me 'til I cry Say, I fucked all night & all the night full, baby & I feel just like I wanna fuck some more Oh, great god, daddy, grind me honey, shave me dry And when you hear me yowl baby, want you to shave it dry. I got nipples on my titties big as the end of my thumb, Daddy you can have 'em any time you want and you can make 'em cum AwooOhhh.. Daddy, shave me dry & I'll give you somethin', baby, swear it'll make you cry I'm gonna turn back my mattress & let you oil my springs I want you to grind me, daddy, 'til the bells do ring Awwww, daddy, want you to shave 'em dry., Oh pray God daddy, you can shave 'em baby, won't you try? Now, fucking is the thing that'll take me to heaven I'll be fucking in the studio 'til the clock strikes 11 Ooooh, daddy, daddy, shave 'em dry I will fuck you baby, honey, I can make you cry Now, your nuts hang down like a damn bell-clapper & your dick stands up like a steeple, your god-damned asshole stand open like a church door & the crab walks in like people Ooow, shit! [laughs] Woooah! Baby, won't you shave 'em dry! A big sow gets fat from eating corn & a pig gets fat from suckin' You should see this whore, fat like I am, Great God I got fat from fuckin' My back is made of whalebone, & my cock is made of brass, And my fuckin's made for workin' men, two dollars round to fit my ass, Wooo, Daddy, shave 'em dry! To me, Davis was playing it safe here. Either she didn't know about Bogan's version or she avoided it - preferring to stay in territory that wdn't discredit her in academia. Bogan REALLY puts it out there - presumably she really was a prostitute & this REALLY was a whorehouse blues song. In contrast, Rainey, too, was restrained by the marketplace - albeit somewhat less so than the dominant culture of the time. But lest one think that sexual metaphors are absent from white culture then, it wd pay to examine this novelty jazz lyric ALSO FROM 1924: I'm Gonna Bring a Watermelon to My Girl Tonight - Billy Jones & Ernest Hare (Edison-51365 (9583)) All the boys love Mary, little Mary Brown But she's so contrary, when they come around Only Tommy Tucker ever gets a kiss When the fellows corner him, he tells them this: "When I brought an apple, she let me hold her hand When I brought an orange, we kissed to beat the band When I brought bananas, she hugged me all her might I'm gonna bring a watermelon to my girl tonight" I do have to give Davis credit for being on top of the class & religious issues inherent in the blues' position in overall black culture & beyond. On p 43, in the "Mama's Got the Blues" chapter, Davis writes: "When the National Association of Colored Women was founded in 1896, it chose for its motto "Lifting as We Climb." This motto called upon the most educated, most moral, and most affluent African-American women to recognize the extent to which the dominant culture's racist perceptions linked them with the least educated, most immoral, and most impoverished black women. Mary Church Terrell described this cross-class relationship as a determination "to come into the closest possible touch with the masses of our women, through whom the womanhood of our people is always judged." More explicitly, "[s]elf-preservation demands that [educated black women] go among the lowly, illiterate and even the vicious, to whom they are bound by ties of race and sex . . . to reclaim them." While this posture was certainly admirable and helped to produce a distinguished tradition of progressive activism among black middle-class women from the NACW to the National Council of Negro Women and similar organizations today, what was and remains problematic is the premise that middle-class women embody a standard their poorer sisters should be encouraged to emulate." & on p 124 she writes: "Blues singers were (and to a certain extent still are) associated with the Devil because they celebrated those dimensions of human existence considered evil and immoral according to the tenets of Christianity. But precisely because they offered enlightenment on love and sexuality, blues singers often have been treated as secular counterparts to Christian ministers , recognized by their constituencies as no less important authorities in their respective realms. However, from the vantage point of devout Christians, blues singers are unmitigated sinners and the creativity they demonstrate and the worldview they advocate are in flagrant defiance of the community's prevailing religious beliefs." BRAVO! Take Bogan's "Now, your nuts hang down like a damn bell-clapper & your dick stands up like a steeple, your god-damned asshole stand open like a church door & the crab walks in like people"? Bogan is delightfully blasphemous - she embraces sexuality wholeheartedly & doesn't buy into the bourgeois church world at all. I shd point out, though, that in my transcription of one of Bogan's verses I hear: "Now, fucking is the thing that'll take me to heaven, I'll be fucking in the studio 'til the clock strikes 11" but the Paul Oliver transcription that I consulted online for comparison reads it as: "Now fuckin's one thing that'll take me to Hell, I'll be fuckin' in the studio just to fuck that to leather". Now I don't know wch is correct but the "heaven" vs "hell" cd be taken as meaning 2 very different things. & this is where my own interpretation of the subject may diverge dramatically from Davis' own. While Davis credits the blues w/ being more sexually open & 'realistic' in relation to working class sexuality than the dominant culture's songs were at the time I think she overemphasizes this to make her point. Both cultures, as she notes, center around 'love' songs - & I think that this connection is stronger than she gives it credit for being. BOTH cultures are largely in denial of what 'love' consists of, both are, IMO, delusional - & these delusions run thru human history even to the present. MOST of the songs sung by the 3 central singers are songs of unsatisfactory 'love'. What does this mean? Well.. I think that 'love' usually means a satisfaction of biological demands - sugar-coated w/ delusions of emotional significance that aren't referred to as instincts generated by DNA demanding replication. Such explicit references to BIOLOGY W/O ROMANTICISM go against the cultural grain of MOST or ALL cultures as far as I can tell. & this is a much stronger bond between the blues & dominant culture than the differences are differing. Blues song after blues song express misery at the singers' men having left them. I maintain that it's an across-the-board 'need' of humans to be sexually satisfied & to interpret this satisfaction as emotional. SO, when a lover leaves there's despair b/c one is deprived of that satisfaction. What goes unacknowledged is that if DNA rules, as I think it does, the reason for the partner leaving has more to do w/ the biological replicative imperative than anything else: if children aren't produced, the partners separate to try other seedings; if children ARE produced, the partners separate to try to diversify the seedings. This may seem to be ignoring homosexual drives but that's not my purpose: I think sexual drives are instinctually replicative but are navigated by 'higher' cognitive functions that substantially bypass the replicative. & here's where I'm going to stick my critical neck out even further: it seems to be underacknowledged, again, that fucking might be very popular w/ poor people b/c it's FREE & you don't necessarily have to have money to do it. SEX BRINGS GREAT PLEASURE - hence my reading of Lucille Bogan going to "heaven" rather than "hell" thru it. Again, I stick my neck out here knowing full well that people will hate what I have to say - but here's MY working class realism: The harder a person's economic life, the more likelihood there is of arrested development - hence the emotional immaturity of 'love' songs in wch 'unfaithful' partners get threatened w/ murder. What do I mean? If a person is forced by economic conditions into working at an early age, they're much less likely to have the luxury of developing emotionally. Their development is arrested (ie: stunted) by having to deal w/ adult problems at a non-adult age. Take the example of a prostitute that a friend of mine regularly went to as a client. Her whore name was "Sugar". As a child, Sugar lived w/ her mom, her stepdad, & her brother. The mom was fucking the brother, the stepdad wanted to fuck Sugar. So when the mom found out about the latter what did she do? Kick out the stepdad? NO WAY! She kicked out Sugar at the ripe old age of 12 to 14! So what does Sugar, an adolescent w/ no work skills, do to support herself? Surprise, surprise, she gets picked up by a pimp & exploited. &, yet, she still has teddy bears & fantasies that a person allowed to develop more gradually wd grow out of as adolescence is replaced by late teens, early twenties, etc.. & this IS, often, a working class (or impoverished class) problem that isn't race-specific. The fantasies of 'faithful love' referred to in blues songs are common to the arrested development of people who're forced into harsh exploited life before they have a chance to develop enuf emotional maturity to see the foolishness of such fantasies. & Davis' bk doesn't reference this at all. But, then, just when I start to get annoyed w/ Davis, she teaches me something important - in this case about the "catastrophic and tragic floods of the Mississippi River" in 1927 & the way in wch the relief programs were used as yet-another racist suppression of black people. Shades of Katrina, eh?! All in all, I found myself more interested in the songs like this that deviate from the overriding theme of 'unfaithful' lovers. This wd include Joe Davis' "Mean Old Bedbug Blues" - particularly poignant in today's time of the resurgence of the bedbug infestation. Alas, I think that Davis really stretches it when she writes that "Billie Holiday's songs were subversive in that they offered special and privileged insights about the dominant culture. She sang songs produced by its rapidly developing popular-culture industry. Unlike Gertrude Rainey and Bessie Smith, she did not concentrate on the musical creations of black culture. Rather, she boldly entered the domain of white love as it filtered through the commodified images and market strategies of Tin Pan Alley." Can't Holiday just be HUMAN? Can't she be primarily a person WHO LOVED TO SING? & who sang what she did b/c of the way she was slotted into the marketplace? I assume she gave whatever she sang her own natural inflection but does that transform her into someone whose "songs were subversive"? I think Davis is straining to fit Holiday into Davis' own political agenda. As I write this, I'm listening to Holiday sing "Wherever You Are" &, nah, I don't hear any 'subversion' in it at all. It seems to me that she sings it pretty straight. Davis comments extensively on the significance of Holiday's singing of the truly great landmark anti-lynching song "Strange Fruit" in 1939 & onward & I'm not going to debate its awe-inspiring importance. I will, however, point out that other protest songs predate "Strange Fruit" that Davis might not know about: "Chinaman, Laundryman" - poem by H. T. Tsiang - set to music by Ruth Crawford Seeger lyrics gotten from: http://www.recmusic.org/lieder/get_te... Chinaman, Laundryman Language: English "Chinaman"! "Laundryman"! Don't call me "man"! I am worse than a slave. Wash! Wash! Why can I wash away The dirt of others' clothes But not the hatred of my heart? My skin is yellow, Does my yelow skin color the clothes? Why do you pay me less For the same work? Clever boss! You know How to scatter the seeds of hatred Among your ignorant slaves. Iron! Iron! Why can I smooth away The wrinkle Of others' dresses But not the miseries of my heart? Why should I come to America To wash clothes? Do you think "Chinamen" in China Wear no dresses? I came to America Three days after my marriage. When can I see her again? Only the almighty "Dollar" knows! Dry! Dry! Why do clothes dry, But not my tears? I work Twelve hours a day, He pays Fifteen dollars a week. My boss says, "Chinaman, Go back to China, If you don't feel satisfied! There, Unlimited hours of toil: Two silver dollars a week, If You can find a job." Thank you, Boss, For you remind me. I know Bosses are robbers everywhere! Chinese boss says: "You Chinaman, Me Chinaman, Come work for me -- Work for your fellow countryman! By the way, You 'Wong', me 'Wong' -- Do we not belong to same family? Ha! ha! We are cousins! O yes! You 'Hai Shan', me 'Hai Shan', Do we not come from same district? O come work for me; I will treat you better!" GET away from here! What is the difference, When you come to exploit me? "Chinaman"! "Laundryman"! Don't call me "Chinaman"! Yes, I am a "Laundryman"! The workingman! Don't call me "Chinaman"! I am the Worldman! ["The International Soviet Shall be his human race!"]1 "Chinaman"! "Laundryman"! All you workingmen! Here is the brush Made of [Marxism]2 Here is the soap Made of [Leninism]3. Let us all wash with the [blood]4! Let us all Press with the iron! Wash! Brush! Dry! Iron! Then we shall have A clean world! 1: not set by Crawford-Seeger. 2: Crawford-Seeger: "study" 3: Crawford-Seeger: "action" 4: Crawford-Seeger: "brush" PP 200 to 358 of Blues Legacies.. consist of transcriptions of every song recorded by Rainey & Smith. On p xvi of the Introduction, Davis writes: "I should point out here that these transcriptions are my own." If Davis truly transcribed all of these w/o the assistance of students or interns or other academic help or online sources I have to compliment her! This wd be an enormous task. This bk is a valuable resource for these transcriptions alone. Additionally, there's a 14pp "Works Consulted" appendix that wd probably be very useful to other researchers.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Jim

    It's Angela Y. Davis, so you know it's brilliant, though I will say this was not quite as grounded in theory as her other works tend to be. For me much of the difficulty for Davis is taking such a lively medium and tying to explain it. Though she does print all the lyrics as part of the text - which is amazing and almost as worthwhile a read as the textual analysis - she drains much of the life and energy from them. At times her smartness gets in the way, and she refuses other readings of the so It's Angela Y. Davis, so you know it's brilliant, though I will say this was not quite as grounded in theory as her other works tend to be. For me much of the difficulty for Davis is taking such a lively medium and tying to explain it. Though she does print all the lyrics as part of the text - which is amazing and almost as worthwhile a read as the textual analysis - she drains much of the life and energy from them. At times her smartness gets in the way, and she refuses other readings of the songs in her attempt to make her points. These three women, and many others too, spoke about issues in their songs that went against cultural norms about the place of Black People, and Black Women especially, in society. Davis asserts the music was more than just entertainment, it was transgressive and progressive, and more than just personal, but also political and feminist. I question a few larger conceptual leaps, but, like many artistic endeavors, there are surely multiple readings to be made. I had more fun reading the lyrics (and digging up the songs on Spotify) than following Davis' dissections and explanations, but there is no doubt there is plenty to think about here. I will always read Angela Y. Davis. She is a warrior for justice. Now more than ever we need warriors.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Nick Jones

    I don’t know much about Angela Davis. I was first aware of her through John Lennon’s song and, of course, a Communist feminist who went to prison for gun running for Black nationalists is always going to be conservative America’s worst nightmare (unless she converts to Islam)...so she’s alright with me. And she seems to have had a respectable career in academia since and here is a solid academic book about Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, placing their music largely into the context o I don’t know much about Angela Davis. I was first aware of her through John Lennon’s song and, of course, a Communist feminist who went to prison for gun running for Black nationalists is always going to be conservative America’s worst nightmare (unless she converts to Islam)...so she’s alright with me. And she seems to have had a respectable career in academia since and here is a solid academic book about Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, placing their music largely into the context of African-American working class culture, focusing on the way their music addressed black women. Six of the eight chapters concentrate on Rainey and Smith: Davis is at her most secure here and for anyone interested in ‘Classic Blues’ there are many intriguing ideas: I liked, for instance, her discussion of the relationship of the blues to the Church, the music as part of a working class culture and within broader African-American traditions that lead back to the time of slavery and back to Africa, but, on the other hand, although a lot of Davis’s relating the subject matter of Smith and Rainey’s songs to the lives of contemporary African-American women is detailed, it is fairly straightforward. But I have two uncertainties about her methods. First, Davis largely responds to the songs as though they are literary texts, always focusing on the lyrics. (The 200 pages of text is followed by a further 150 pages of transcriptions of the lyrics of the complete Rainey and Smith recordings: an invaluable resource for anyone who loves their singing but strains to hear what they are singing about through the crackle of the old and battered recordings, although I imagine they are now available on the Web.) Leaving aside the fact that the majority of their songs were written by other people, Davis’s methods ignores the unique musical form of the blues: while she emphasises that the blues’ subject matter, such as its highlighting of sex, was antithetical to white popular music, musically the blues was also completely alien: even today, with the influence of the blues filtered and softened through rock, much of early blues sounds very strange, harsh and dissonant: it was not the kind of music polite people invited into their parlours. Davis has no way of discussing this or of discussing Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith as singers...and, finally, they were singers, not creators of literary texts. My second doubt is that while she praises the music for its ambiguities, Davis has no real interest in finding any: she has her political agenda and she follows it: I am sympathetic to her argument, but I am unconvinced that Rainey and Smith’s music is as consistent as Davis argues: the life of art is often found in its inconsistencies and uncertainties, but Davis irons out these interests for the sake of her argument. She often presumes how contemporary Black women responded to the songs, but, while I find her deductions plausible, she draws on very little evidence to back them up. I imagine the contemporary audience’s response was much more varied than Davis allows. The last two chapters are on Billie Holiday: Davis acknowledges that Holiday was not a blues singer, but she is vague how Holiday’s music relates to the earlier blues and these chapters feel a little tacked on. The first of the two chapters, about Holiday’s early recordings of popular Tin Pan Alley songs, is constantly suggestive, while being the least satisfactory in the study. A constant interest of jazz singing is the relation and tension between the performance of the singer and the song: Davis sensibly relates Holiday’s style to black American traditions and the songs as part of white popular music, but, because of her concentration on the lyrics, Davis has no real way of discussing this tension, other than dismissing the songs as pieces of fluff that were forced upon Holiday: there is a suggestive comparison between the way English was originally forced upon the African slaves and the way these songs were forced upon Holiday, but, finally, I don’t think it is a valid analogy: yes, individual and sometimes very poor songs were forced onto Holiday by her record company, but Davis ignores that Holiday sang within a specific jazz style (Swing) which continually drew upon and responded to white popular music. Davis implies that Holiday would have been singing some other sort of song if given the freedom, but it is difficult to know what that might have been. The final chapter focuses on Holiday’s interpretation of the anti-lynching song, ‘Strange Fruit’: Davis is back on more secure ground, relating this song to a continuing tradition of African-American social protest...but Davis’s enthusiasm for this work is based on the assumption that the value of a song or recording is found in the Seriousness of its subject matter: those of us who love Holiday’s work for her unique way of phrasing a line, the way she gives a standard new and unexpected emotional resonance through her originality of approach, will probably find this an inadequate response. For anyone interested in the subject matter this book is well worth reading, but, overall, it didn’t make me rethink my response to these singers.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Cris

    This was in the top 2 of books I read in 2017 and I only read it on accident. Someone I know please read it so we can discuss. There's something (a lot) here for you if you care about racism, sexism, sociology, history and/or blues/jazz. This was in the top 2 of books I read in 2017 and I only read it on accident. Someone I know please read it so we can discuss. There's something (a lot) here for you if you care about racism, sexism, sociology, history and/or blues/jazz.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Katie

    I found this book in a store on Beale Street in Memphis. The title grabbed my attention so I bought it. I don’t know much about the history of blues music, but this was a fascinating introduction to some of the women who shaped it. It’s given me a new appreciation for the blues in general and for Black women blues artists specifically.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Angel 一匹狼

    Unfortunately, I am a little bit disappointed by "Blues Legacies and Black Feminism", a book that I had probably too high expectations to begin with. The book does a good job in developing its thesis: blues and the female singers/performers of blues that had been criticized for many years for their lyrics and songs, are actually part of the black feminist revolution, and their songs, and their lives, show that blues and, in this case, Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday challen Unfortunately, I am a little bit disappointed by "Blues Legacies and Black Feminism", a book that I had probably too high expectations to begin with. The book does a good job in developing its thesis: blues and the female singers/performers of blues that had been criticized for many years for their lyrics and songs, are actually part of the black feminist revolution, and their songs, and their lives, show that blues and, in this case, Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday challenged the status quo and talked about topics that went against preconceived ideas around feminism, being black in America, violence... The book will be a good read for anyone interested in the topic and if you have read about it before, it will help filling some spots and bringing new light to others. Because of who they were and the role they played in American culture, and analysis of Rainey, Smith and Holiday can bring some interesting interpretations. However, the book falters in three points (four): 1. Maybe this is a very harsh criticism, but Davis's way of writing is very typical, prototypical, of academic writing. This could have been written (not the topic or the analysis but the way it is written, it is explained) by any student of master or PhD I have come across in my life. There is a lack of Fanon or Crenshaw here. Too much status quo in the writing. 2. Also, Davis puts many meanings into the tone of the voice of the singers, into the interpretations of the lyrics, and into the lyrics themselves, that feels more what she wants to see that what may be really be there. As anyone who has created any kind of art knows (or sent any message or written any letter), what one wants to say and how it is interpreted can be two very different things; not only so, our interpretation may change with time and what we wrote ten years ago be seen under a different prism afterwards. So, it feels Davis has decided the songs, and the singers, and the way they sang, must mean what she wants it to mean... and I am no entirely convinced by her explanations 3. You can also say, and this is me, that the topic is too specific. Not because Rainey, Smith and Holiday are not interesting, not because their role in American culture was small, but because, along the years, academic studies, academic writing, and the whole world around it, has developed an obsession with the need to create articles, books, conferences, to be respected, to be heard, and this has brought thousands of academics (and master and PhD students) to write over a huge range of topics that just reinforce some particular points of view because they HAVE to produce, they HAVE to write something. And it follows a particular path: I believe this, I will write about these topics being influenced by those believes, and then keep doing that. And sometimes, the reason for creating, for analyzing, for bringing a post-whatever look on a topic, is forgotten, deadlines, words count and peer reviews (cough cough) more important than anything else. And in many ways, this book feels a product of that world. (4.) It is not that half of the book are the lyrics of the songs, is that also half of Davis's analysis on these songs is the songs themselves, which makes the flow of the reading a little bit hiccup-y Maybe if Davis had focused more on the role the songs, and the singers, the industry, played on society, and less onto her interpretations of the lyrics and the way the singers sang, this could have been better. If you are interested in the topic, though, please read it. But it could had been way more than it is. The best: it brings a new light and perspective on blues, its influence and its female performers and creators The worst: it doesn't break new ground; sometimes it feels like Davis is 'finding' meanings in the songs Alternatives: Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Frantz Fanon, Cynthia Enloe, your friendly neighbor Foucault... 6.5/10 (English)

  14. 5 out of 5

    Chrisiant

    Overall I really loved this book and was so glad I ended up borrowing it to read on a four-hour bus ride. Davis' prose is very dense and academic, at times almost too dense to wade through. I can see that being a turn-off for many readers, and it's unfortunate, because I think there's a lot of really fabulous and useful points in here. My only other criticism is that it seemed to me Davis was sometimes contorting to get the meaning out of a song that fit her argument. I generally gave her the be Overall I really loved this book and was so glad I ended up borrowing it to read on a four-hour bus ride. Davis' prose is very dense and academic, at times almost too dense to wade through. I can see that being a turn-off for many readers, and it's unfortunate, because I think there's a lot of really fabulous and useful points in here. My only other criticism is that it seemed to me Davis was sometimes contorting to get the meaning out of a song that fit her argument. I generally gave her the benefit of the doubt, because so much of the meaning she was wringing from these songs came from the elements of their performance, which is obviously hard to glean from lyrics alone. Beyond those two things, there is really nothing but awesome about this book. Davis makes numerous insightful points about the role of blues women in creating space and consciousness for black feminism. Their songs expressed the new-found sexual agency of black individuals after slavery, frankly acknowledging and celebrating women's sexual agency. They expressed the black individual experience as separate from the community experience focused on in the music of slavery, but sang them to a wide audience and addressed them in ways that called for recognition of collective experience. The songs also baldly, and without judgment, discussed topics taboo in middle-class society such as domestic violence, homosexuality, multiple relationships, prison, and poverty.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Troy

    I think that there are a number of takeaways from this book, and just thinking about how they relate to cultural studies of today, I think they are as pertinent as ever. The challenge to patriarchy by simply affirming sexual agency? Still today. THe revolutionary act of simply picking up and moving somewhere? Still there. The fight of middle- and upper class blacks to disengage from the history and circumstance of their working class brothers and sisters? OH SO REAL. The points Ms. Davis makes ar I think that there are a number of takeaways from this book, and just thinking about how they relate to cultural studies of today, I think they are as pertinent as ever. The challenge to patriarchy by simply affirming sexual agency? Still today. THe revolutionary act of simply picking up and moving somewhere? Still there. The fight of middle- and upper class blacks to disengage from the history and circumstance of their working class brothers and sisters? OH SO REAL. The points Ms. Davis makes are that this is feminism; even more, this is black feminism. THis is a need to choose a path and follow it in song, in a society that marginalizes the voice singing it. One particular point she makes, that I can't get out of my head, was her answer to a critic's view that this was not "protest" music. Her reasoning is nuanced, but comes down to this; without an existing social movement, music is NOT THE MOVEMENT. Without orgs like the NAACP or CORE, "A Change is Gonna Come" has little power. Without Lady Day's "Strange Fruit", we would have been deprived of a beautiful rendition of some very real social wrongs, but without the anti-lynching groups established then, very little would have happened.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Susan

    Here's something I re-learned in this book.....a fact I should have known....a woman was the first recorded blues artist. Before Robert Johnson and before Blind Lemon Jefferson, before Albert King and Freddie King and BBB King...there was Ma Rainey, mother of the blues. Here's what Professor Davis has to say, "The blues realm is all encompassing. In contrast to the condemnatory and censuring character of Christianity, it knows few taboos. As a cultural form that has long been a target for racist Here's something I re-learned in this book.....a fact I should have known....a woman was the first recorded blues artist. Before Robert Johnson and before Blind Lemon Jefferson, before Albert King and Freddie King and BBB King...there was Ma Rainey, mother of the blues. Here's what Professor Davis has to say, "The blues realm is all encompassing. In contrast to the condemnatory and censuring character of Christianity, it knows few taboos. As a cultural form that has long been a target for racist-inspired marginalization, the blues categorically refrains from relegating to the margins any person or behavior." Big Mama Thorton said the same thing in a different way: "Now when you in trouble the blues is a girl's best friend. When you in trouble the blues is a girl's best friend. Blues ain't gone ask where you goin. Blues don't care where you been."

  17. 4 out of 5

    Shanice Mcbean

    Another fantastic book by Angela elucidating fascinating, often hidden, aspects of black history and black women's history in particular. Though I think Angela's analysis of Billie Holiday is sometimes a bit tenuous (I feel she's afraid of recognising the humanity of Lady Day and her resultant flaws in a bid to rescue her from the problematic analysis of other writers) her analysis of "Strange Fruit" and the social consciousness of 1920s Blues women is brilliant. Blues music - whilst not explici Another fantastic book by Angela elucidating fascinating, often hidden, aspects of black history and black women's history in particular. Though I think Angela's analysis of Billie Holiday is sometimes a bit tenuous (I feel she's afraid of recognising the humanity of Lady Day and her resultant flaws in a bid to rescue her from the problematic analysis of other writers) her analysis of "Strange Fruit" and the social consciousness of 1920s Blues women is brilliant. Blues music - whilst not explicitly protest music in the 20s - provided the social space for the ferment of anti-racist and sometimes anti-sexist and anti-homophobic sentiment to take hold in working class communities. It's an important aspect of the development of American, black working class consciousness and culture and this book is certainly worth a read to anyone interested in black hisotry.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Tank

    In this text, Davis exams the many facets in which Rainey, Smith, and Holiday are still relevant in any discourse involving Black American music, history, and feminism. These women and their artistry transformed the sociocultural way in which we examine and experience music, sexuality, love, and on a massive scale cross-cultural communication and issues of social justice. To get a crash course in post-slavery America at the turn of the century and many of the social justice issues that terrorize In this text, Davis exams the many facets in which Rainey, Smith, and Holiday are still relevant in any discourse involving Black American music, history, and feminism. These women and their artistry transformed the sociocultural way in which we examine and experience music, sexuality, love, and on a massive scale cross-cultural communication and issues of social justice. To get a crash course in post-slavery America at the turn of the century and many of the social justice issues that terrorized us then, and still plague us today, this is one of the texts you want to grab.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Mark Brown

    So I must give respect where respect is due - Angela Davis is a very smart woman. However, this book was not good. Maybe its because I am skeptical and a singer but her analysis of the voice and her seeming to "know" what these ladies were trying to portray is a bit of a stretch. It is mostly personal opinion for the most part and I found myself pushing through it to say that I had read it but not good - in my opinion. So I must give respect where respect is due - Angela Davis is a very smart woman. However, this book was not good. Maybe its because I am skeptical and a singer but her analysis of the voice and her seeming to "know" what these ladies were trying to portray is a bit of a stretch. It is mostly personal opinion for the most part and I found myself pushing through it to say that I had read it but not good - in my opinion.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Robin

    I originally read this book ten years ago in perhaps the most appropriate setting imaginable: on the job at a pseudo-old timey tourist trap of a coffee shop on Beale Street, Memphis TN. I'm happy to say that upon rereading, this book is as important to me now as it was then, as a Memphian, as a girl raised on the blues, and as a feminist. Recommended for anyone who doubts the contributions that black women have made to popular music, and especially to anyone who doesn't. I originally read this book ten years ago in perhaps the most appropriate setting imaginable: on the job at a pseudo-old timey tourist trap of a coffee shop on Beale Street, Memphis TN. I'm happy to say that upon rereading, this book is as important to me now as it was then, as a Memphian, as a girl raised on the blues, and as a feminist. Recommended for anyone who doubts the contributions that black women have made to popular music, and especially to anyone who doesn't.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Jamie Howison

    The blues musician and scholar Adam Gussow put me on to this book, as an important treatment on the history of the blues music tradition. Here it is the women who come to the fore, with lots of grit, humour, earthiness... and as Davis so persuasively argues, a good deal of social and political import as well. The chapter on Billie Holiday's version of "Strange Fruit" along makes it worth the read. The blues musician and scholar Adam Gussow put me on to this book, as an important treatment on the history of the blues music tradition. Here it is the women who come to the fore, with lots of grit, humour, earthiness... and as Davis so persuasively argues, a good deal of social and political import as well. The chapter on Billie Holiday's version of "Strange Fruit" along makes it worth the read.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Winter Sophia Rose

    Insightful, Flawless & A Powerful Read! I Loved It!

  23. 5 out of 5

    Krayfish1

    The first six chapters were textual analysis of the songs of Ma Rainy and Bessie Smith, chapter seven was about how Billie Holiday transformed trite lyrics into something interesting (so it's the one chapter you really can't understand/engage with without finding a recording), and the last chapter is about the song "Strange Fruit". Davis uses a dense, academic style of writing. She is arguing against historians who paint the blues as a genre where only men did anything important and against comme The first six chapters were textual analysis of the songs of Ma Rainy and Bessie Smith, chapter seven was about how Billie Holiday transformed trite lyrics into something interesting (so it's the one chapter you really can't understand/engage with without finding a recording), and the last chapter is about the song "Strange Fruit". Davis uses a dense, academic style of writing. She is arguing against historians who paint the blues as a genre where only men did anything important and against commentators who regarded the blues as low-brow trashy music. A few arguments: --The songs are aimed at women and giving advice to women, so it's not all jealousy all the time --The theme of travel shows up in women's blues songs quite a bit, so it's not all "men travel, women cry" --Being in control over their own sexuality and marriage choices was one of the signs that they were no longer living under slavery, so singing about relationships was important --Singing about domestic violence is a precursor to some of the tactics used in the 1970's women's movement (naming an issue and making it public) --There was a similar amount of domestic violence in communities that sing about "I love my man even though he beats me" and communities that sing about "Ah, sweet mystery of life at last I've found you", and one of those communities is more honest. --A number of songs are about the prevalence of jail and menial labor in the lives of black people, and this counts as protest. --Harlem Renaissance people wanted to distance themselves from the blues, because they were caught up in middle class morality and "high-brow" art. Davis also transcribed Rainey and Smith's recorded songs. Side note: Smith's "Kitchen Man" has got a ridiculous amount of innuendo in it, it's great.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Chris

    Davis’ feminist interpretation of Women’s Blues music and the career of Billie Holiday is enlightening. Blues Legacies And Black Feminism not only illuminates the work of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and their music’s place in American culture, but also gave me greater understanding into the development of African-American culture within the larger (White) United States after emancipation. Davis explores the songs of each singer (The book contains transcriptions of all Rainey’s and S Davis’ feminist interpretation of Women’s Blues music and the career of Billie Holiday is enlightening. Blues Legacies And Black Feminism not only illuminates the work of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and their music’s place in American culture, but also gave me greater understanding into the development of African-American culture within the larger (White) United States after emancipation. Davis explores the songs of each singer (The book contains transcriptions of all Rainey’s and Smith’s songs in a very helpful addendum. I have been listening to all three artists’ work as I read.) and considers the milieu in which they were written, sung, and performed. In the case of Rainey and Smith, Davis writes of the oppressive, White, Masculine, atmosphere that these artists performed in, communicating in the language of the subjugated irrepressibly speaking truth to power, what needed to be, what could be, said. There is conjecture about what environments were like, or what a singer’s particular phrasing signified, but that is true of any historical analysis. Davis has ample data to back up her suppositions. In Davis’s descriptions of subjugated peoples—here specifically, Slaves and Women—efforts to communicate to each other. I was reminded of the manners of resistance I’d read about in Eastern European opposition to Communist regimes, (and Nazis, and Austro-Hungarians, before that). Davies analyses of Billie Holiday’s renderings of sentimental Tin Pan Alley tunes broaden my perspective and will sharpen my ears for future listenings. The chapter on Holiday’s creation of “Strange Fruit” is moving in so many ways.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Carol

    This fascinating book looks at women's blues of the 1920s and 1930s through the lens of black feminism, revealing how the lyrics and recorded performances of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith illuminated the struggles and issues that black working-class women faced in the early 20th century. It also looks at how Billie Holiday was inspired and informed by this music and how she carried forward some of the themes of Rainey and Smith's work. Davis interprets Rainey and Smith's songs through the social an This fascinating book looks at women's blues of the 1920s and 1930s through the lens of black feminism, revealing how the lyrics and recorded performances of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith illuminated the struggles and issues that black working-class women faced in the early 20th century. It also looks at how Billie Holiday was inspired and informed by this music and how she carried forward some of the themes of Rainey and Smith's work. Davis interprets Rainey and Smith's songs through the social and political contexts of their times with great insight. She also connects the feminist content of these songs to the later feminist movement of the 1970s. The only thing this book lacks is an closer examination of the music itself. I found this book extremely interesting, especially the ways that Davis tied blues lyrics to the specific conditions of black women's lives in the decades after emancipation: the importance of the freedom to choose sexual partners, the importance of travel, the lack of economic opportunities, and resistance to male dominance and violence. I very much liked the way Davis tied the blues to historical events and contexts, like the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, and the 1927 flood of the Mississippi. I also liked the discussion of the ways in which blues music stood in opposition to and provided an alternative to the assimilation of middle-class values and ideals of womanhood, and to the repressive side of the Christian church.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Aaron Chu

    Literature like this is extremely important. As pointed out throughout the book, women musicians whose contributions are essential to contemporary racial and feminist movements are often downplayed or forgotten. Much of the credits have been attributed to men in jazz literature. For example, when biographies are written about jazz men, the focus is always on his career and his personal success. Biographies about jazz women often focus on the plight in the her personal life, externalizing and dis Literature like this is extremely important. As pointed out throughout the book, women musicians whose contributions are essential to contemporary racial and feminist movements are often downplayed or forgotten. Much of the credits have been attributed to men in jazz literature. For example, when biographies are written about jazz men, the focus is always on his career and his personal success. Biographies about jazz women often focus on the plight in the her personal life, externalizing and disassociating the craft and musical, social contributes from the artist. Davis's book is important and emotional for me as, finally, there is a text that can do justice to the work and craft of these goddesses. I am particularly empowered by the reading about Billie Holiday and Stranger Fruit. This book inspires me to appreciate and respect Blues and Jazz even more than I already do. It also equips me with new ways to appreciate this amazing music.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Kurt

    It's good! Well-researched and well-argued, and I learned a lot from her interrogations and analyses of both the lyrics and interpretations of all three singers. My two criticisms are 1) it can be a little dry at times (this was the same criticism I had of another pretty-great non-fiction book I read last year that I felt a similar way about, Carbon Democracy) and 2) occasionally, some of the points feel a little forced, not as if they couldn't be true, but as if Davis is transparently ignoring It's good! Well-researched and well-argued, and I learned a lot from her interrogations and analyses of both the lyrics and interpretations of all three singers. My two criticisms are 1) it can be a little dry at times (this was the same criticism I had of another pretty-great non-fiction book I read last year that I felt a similar way about, Carbon Democracy) and 2) occasionally, some of the points feel a little forced, not as if they couldn't be true, but as if Davis is transparently ignoring other possible interpretations for the sake of making her own argument seem better. The most serious example of this would be when she discusses some of the reasons a singer like Bessie Smith would choose the material she did, but fails to consider that one possible factor is that under capitalism, recording artists have to sell, and sensational topics for songs were one way to try and spark interest for record sales. Still, overall, this is a great analysis of the three artists she focuses on.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Lindy

    It's one of those books that gets cited everywhere and is considered foundational to scholarship around blues women (and I understand why) but was underwhelming to me once I actually read it. In particular, I'm not impressed by how Davis would often assert that she could tell, through careful study of inflection, that a singer meant something ironically (e.g.), but would not go on to describe that inflection. These days, it's easy to search for the song on your streaming service of choice and ju It's one of those books that gets cited everywhere and is considered foundational to scholarship around blues women (and I understand why) but was underwhelming to me once I actually read it. In particular, I'm not impressed by how Davis would often assert that she could tell, through careful study of inflection, that a singer meant something ironically (e.g.), but would not go on to describe that inflection. These days, it's easy to search for the song on your streaming service of choice and judge for yourself, but when the book was written, some of the music discussed was not yet available on compact disc. It's just not persuasive.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Sarah M.

    My introduction to blues was Billie Holiday, and I've got to say that I'm desperately, head over heels in love with her. This book was part of my rush to get my hands on as much information about her as I possibly could. What I found was a fantastic analysis of the black feminist themes in blues, and a collection gorgeous lyrics (some transcribed by ear) of songs that were almost lost to time. Ms. Davis writes in a way that's easy to read and lovely to cite (and trust me, I've cited this book in My introduction to blues was Billie Holiday, and I've got to say that I'm desperately, head over heels in love with her. This book was part of my rush to get my hands on as much information about her as I possibly could. What I found was a fantastic analysis of the black feminist themes in blues, and a collection gorgeous lyrics (some transcribed by ear) of songs that were almost lost to time. Ms. Davis writes in a way that's easy to read and lovely to cite (and trust me, I've cited this book in many - a - paper). If you're interest in the subject matter, read it. If you're not? Read it anyway and learn something.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Jaclyn

    An insightful re-centering of Black women in yet another space where they are often ignored or sidelined: the Blues. I appreciated learning about the distinction between the Harlem Renaissance 'intelligentsia' who looked down on the blues as a lowbrow art form compared to what they were creating (in Davis' articulation); learned a lot about where and how class showed up in this music, and in particular, how that intersected with sexuality and dominant cultural norms of "womanhood". A quick and f An insightful re-centering of Black women in yet another space where they are often ignored or sidelined: the Blues. I appreciated learning about the distinction between the Harlem Renaissance 'intelligentsia' who looked down on the blues as a lowbrow art form compared to what they were creating (in Davis' articulation); learned a lot about where and how class showed up in this music, and in particular, how that intersected with sexuality and dominant cultural norms of "womanhood". A quick and fascinating read; lots of callbacks to authors I've just recently read or have on deck. The saga continues.

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