Saluting Women Artists of the Classic Blues Era

Posted by Billyjam, March 28, 2012 06:39pm | Post a Comment
In observance of the ongoing Amoeblog series honoring Women's History Month, this blog salutes women blues singers from the classic blues era. I will also post a second part celebrating women blues artists from later decades. But for now, I am focusing on the classic blues era of a century ago. It was a time when these women artists were pioneers by being both among the very first black singers and  blues artists to be recorded.

This first wave of recorded female blues was spearheaded by such American music legends as Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Mamie Smith (no relation to Bessie), and of course Ma Rainey.  Born in 1886, Ma Rainey earned the title “Mother of the Blues” for being instrumental in bringing the music to the public first. She is credited with both influencing all other female blues singers that came after her and with being the first to perform the blues on stage as popular entertainment. This she did when, at the turn of the century, she first incorporated blues into her broader vaudeville act that was built around comedy bits and show songs of the time. As legend has it Rainey would close every show with a song about a woman losing her man that she called “The Blues." Rainey, along with her husband Pa Rainey, is credited with discovering Bessie Smith on one of her early tours.

Ma Rainey, aka The Mother of the Blues, "Deep Moaning Blues" (1928)

Clara Smith, whose delivery was a little less gritty than others of her era,
"Don't Advertise Your Man" (1924)

Mamie Smith made history by being the first African American artist to
make vocal blues recordings with this 1920 recording of "Crazy Blues"

In 1920, NYC-based cabaret singer Mamie Smith earned the title of “America’s First Lady of the Bluesas she was reportedly the first black woman to record the blues with the song “Crazy Blues"  (this has been disputed by some in more recent years). "Crazy Blues" became a big seller and would be instrumental in kick-starting the national obsession with the blues which, at the time, was geared towards African American music fans and marketed as "race records." Of these early female blues singers, the best paid and one of the highest profile acts was Tennessee-born Bessie Smith who signed with Columbia Records and released her first record in 1923, following many years of paying her dues (along the way, she earned the title “Empress of the Blues"). Together with Ma Rainey, Smith has been credited with opening peoples' ears/minds to a more raw style of blues delivery. Smith, who was killed in a car crash at the age of 43, also directly influenced many later artists including Janis Joplin, who reportedly bought a tombstone for her mentor's grave.

Bessie Smith, aka Empress of the Blues, "St. Louis Blues" (1929)

Other artists of this classic blues era, that ended by the end of the 1920's (due to a combination a shift in blues styles and the impact of The Great Depression), include Ida Cox, Clara Smith, Sara Martin, Lucille Hegamin, Alberta Hunter, Hattie McDaniel, Edith Wilson, Victoria Spivey, Sippie Wallace, and guitarist/singer Memphis Minnie who was also considered "country blues."

Through their contributions to the music (different from men's in such ways as how they incorporated moans, wails, and other dramatic vocal embellishments in their delivery), these women helped shape and influence other genres of American popular music in the following decades, from big band jazz to R&B and rock & roll. Above and below are samplings of some of the incredible music by these women. Personally, I think it is just incredible and it is the type of music that only gets better with repeated listening. Check back over the next couple of days for the next part in this tribute to women in the blues and look for these all of these artists at Amoeba Music in the three stores or directly from the online shop.

Ethel Waters "West End Blues" (1928)

Memphis Minnie, who was also classified as country blues (she was the "Queen
of Country Blues") ,doing "Bumble Bee" (1930)

Relevant Tags

Lucille Hegamin (1), Sara Martin (1), Clara Smith (1), Ida Cox (2), Mamie Smith (2), Ethel Waters (1), Bessie Smith (3), Women's History Month (40), Women's History Month 2012 (10), Alberta Hunter (2), Hattie Mcdaniel (1), Edith Wilson (1), Victoria Spivey (1)