1) What role did African-American women play in the development of early blues music?
Prior to the turn of the 20th century, blues singing was traditionally done by men and was primarily performed in the home or at private gatherings. In the early 20th century Ma Rainey, known as the ‘Mother of the Blues’, brought blues singing onto the public stage in theaters and clubs. She, and other African-American women like her, created a new art form known as the vaudeville blues. These performers blended old blues songs with new popular show tunes, creating music that appealed to a wide variety of listeners. African-American female blues singers brought a new form of entertainment onto the American music scene that incorporated the traditional music of African-Americans going back to the days of slavery with the modern exciting music that was popular among American audiences at the beginning of the 1900s.

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2) What were some of the themes they explored in their music?
The themes of the lyrics of blues songs performed by African-American female performers were generally dominated by the relationships between men and women. The traditional blues songs that were performed by African-American men in the 19th century focused on a broader range of hardships and misfortunes in life, but the songs performed by the women were targeted on men. Whether celebrating the qualities of their man, or complaining or lamenting about his shortcomings, the female singers focused on their intimate partners. For many women of this time, their lives were defined by the type of partner they had. Women had much less autonomy and power than they do now, and African-American women were probably the least powerful citizens in the United States at that time. The type of man that you were partnered with could make a huge difference in the quality of your life.

3) What sorts of problems did women, as well as all African-American musicians face when they traveled in the early 20th century?
Travelling in the United States in the early 20th century could be very complicated for African-Americans. Female blues performers often traveled with troupes in medicine or minstrel shows or small carnivals. These shows often followed a circuit around southern states, often only staying in one location for a night or two before traveling on. American southern states had enacted what were called Jim Crows following the end of Reconstruction. These laws were designed to enforce segregation between blacks and whites, and to restrict access to any public accommodation that served white people. Because of these laws, it was very difficult for African-Americans to find hotels, restaurants or other services when traveling in the South. It caused African-American women to have to expose themselves to dangerous situations, such as sleeping in cars and bathing in streams.

4) Why did the women fade as the stars of the blues?
By the end of the 1920s, the vaudeville blues began to become less popular. A homier, less flashy style of blues, mostly performed by men, began to dominate the juke joints, theaters, and music halls. With the onset of the Great Depression, the travelling shows died out; people did not have the money to spend on entertainment. Swing music became popular in the 1930s, and many of the classic blues performers faded into obscurity. Music, like clothing, goes through periods of being fashionable, before being replaced by a new style. The female led vaudeville blues movement, however, had a lasting effect on American music, and became popular again in later decades.

5) After watching the video, do you have any other questions or comments?
I think it is hard for the modern American to appreciate how brave and determined someone like Ma Rainey must have been. She must have been driven by a genuine artistic compulsion. For an African-American woman of her time to have gone on the stage to travel and perform would have taken quite a bit of nerve. She grew up singing gospel songs in the church, as so many other African-American singers have, so she was used to performing in public. Performing vaudeville blues on stages in juke joints and music halls is a far cry from singing in church, however. Because of the drive and nerve of her and women like her, we have this unique and beautiful musical style in the American portfolio.

  • California Newsreel. (2009). Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues. Youtube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ieEN44N0PZ0