The Way of the Blues, from T'ain't Nobody's Business If I Do
The Way of the Blues, from T'ain't Nobody's Business If I Do
by Rhetta Akamatsu
The early history of the blues is mainly an oral history. Generally, it is believed that the blues got their beginning in the Mississippi Delta following the Civil War, and evolved from the songs of field workers, dance tunes called "jump ups," church music, and traditional African music. It grew out of the "call and response" type of song, where a leader would call out a line and the guitar would answer.
The first form of blues was based on folk music. Some of the musicians performing this music played at carnivals and medicine shows, where they came in contact with country musicians, and vaudeville performers. Gradually, they evolved an entirely unique style, the blues as we know it. From Mississippi, the blues followed Highways 61 and 49 to Memphis, and also to New Orleans.
The first venues for black musicians were probably the minstrel shows, which became popular after the Civil War.
While they began with white performers in blackface, by the late 1800's, almost all the performers actually were black. The first black revue was probably "Jack's Creole Burlesque Show," owned by a white man named Jack Ingram, which opened in 1890. Blues greats Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Ida Cox all started out in minstrel shows.
Medicine shows were probably the next venues for the black musicians. The so-called "doctors" who owned the shows traveled all around, looking for gullible customers to sell their herbal, and often mostly alcoholic, medications. Many rural areas lacked adequate medical care, and people were anxious for relief for their various aches and ailments. Black musicians were a cheap, easy draw to gather the crowd to hear the "doctor's" pitch.
The popularity of the medicine shows called out for a more permanent venue for the performers. In 1907, in Memphis, Tennessee, the first theatre for medicine show performers was opened by a man named Fred Barrasso. This theatre eventually led to TOBA, the Theatre Owners Booking Association, an organization that specialized in black music and black performers, and was responsible for the tours of many of the black female blues singers we are going to be discussing.
W.C. Handy was the first musician to popularize the blues in 1911-1912, but it was a woman, Mamie Smith, who really started the blues craze in 1920, when she recorded "Crazy Blues." We will look at Mamie Smith in more detail later.
Around this time, in the 1920's, many of the musicians on Beale Street in New Orleans left town, when Mayor "Boss" Crump shut down Beale to try to put an end to the drinking, gambling, prostitution, and general wild living taking place there. They headed for Chicago and Detroit, where the blues got electrified and became more urban in nature.
Blacks were flooding into the Northern cities anyway, looking for economic opportunity. They were breaking free of the bonds of church and community in the South, and they wanted to be entertained. Black theatres, nightclubs, and bars opened, and all those establishments required entertainers.
Prohibition, in the 20's and ‘30's, only led to an even more booming illegal trade in alcohol. "Speakeasies," illicit nightclubs and gambling institutions had the additional draw of danger and lawlessness, that universal appeal of living on the edge. Black musicians began to play these clubs, too, even those catering to white audiences.
Meanwhile, in the South, black musicians and black partiers were gathering in "juke joints" or "barrelhouses," rented shacks with basically no amenities where people gathered to drink, play, dance, and listen to music.
Along with the men, women began to play in these venues. Many of them had started out playing in church, and many were very young runaways lured by the music business. After all, there were very few attractive job prospects for black women. They could be wives, totally dependent on their men, or they could be maids or washerwomen. A woman who wanted more, who craved some independence, had to look for it in unconventional ways.
Music was one of those ways.
Of course, this was a hard-drinking, hard-loving, hard-fighting life, and a woman had to be tough. Many of the women blues singers were tall, big-boned, and quick with temper and fist. All of them could stand up for themselves. There were no shrinking violets among the early blues women.
The entire early history of the blues took place in a time of strict segregation. Black musicians could not eat in the same restaurants, shop in the same stores, use the same rest rooms, or stay in the same hotels as whites. They were often stopped and harassed by police as they traveled from place to place.
In an article on Memphis Minnie, Del Rey points out:
"In 1907 a blues musician played in all kinds of places: house parties, barrel houses, work camps, traveling shows. It's hard to imagine how prevalent live music was before the advent of consumer electronics. Anywhere you hear canned music now would probably have had a live musician--well, maybe not elevators. Sometimes a blues musician got paid with an apple or a can of sardines, sometimes (she) made as much as a hundred dollars."(1)
Things didn't change much for years.
Conditions, even into the 50's, were often very harsh for these musicians. Ruth Brown spoke of traveling in the 50's in interviews, and described bathing with rubbing alcohol and dressing in parking lots by the light from the car's headlights, and eating at the back doors of greasy spoons and in alleys behind restaurants.
Performers often worked six nights a week, and many of these jobs were one night only. They would travel all night in cars and broken down buses, with no heat or air conditioning, or on trains to get to the next stop, and then take off to do it again. They developed a system of black families with spare bedrooms they could stay with across the country, or stayed in black rooming houses. (2)
It could be a lonely business, so musicians often teamed up and traveled together, and they formed close bonds with one another.
Generally, it was the love of the music and performing, and the lack of any better opportunity, that kept them going. When a performer, like Ma Rainey or Bessie Smith, was able to travel by private train, that was the height of success.
Interestingly, among musicians, there was a lot less prejudice. Musicians tended only to care about the music, and if a person had talent, often that was all that mattered. Black and white musicians often played together, although they seldom traveled together.
And the blues attracted white people as well as black people, especially in the South.
In the South, especially among the poor and lower middle class people, there usually wasn't a lot of difference in lifestyle between blacks and whites. They worked the same sorts of jobs, ate the same kind of food, and had the same kind of money and relationship problems.
Southern people, black and white, understood and responded to the blues, and it was a mixed crowd who often filled the tent shows and, later, the dance halls, although attempts were made to keep the races separate, often without success if the music was really, really good.
Black blues women faced the same problems as the men, and because they were women, they also had to be able to defend themselves against unwanted sexual advances. They were already breaking all kinds of taboos, playing what many people called "devil music," and singing either straight out or through double-talk about sex in places no decent woman would be found. It's not hard to imagine what an easy step it was to break other boundaries, too.
Many of the classic blues women, like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, were lesbian or bi-sexual. Most took their affection where they could get it, including what were known as "buffet" clubs, "buffet" because you could get anything you wanted there. As we will see later, many were arrested and spent a few nights here and there for their unorthodox tastes and partying ways.
But they survived, and they played incredible music. That music has outlived the early blues queens, and is being carried on today by a whole new breed of female blues singers, black and white. Here is a look at some of them, old and new.