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Thursday, October 24, 2019

Prove It on Me: Ma Rainey and the Queer Blues

"When you see two women walking hand in hand 
Just look 'em over and try to understand" 
             – George Hannah, "The Boy in the Boat"

In 1925, the Chicago police arrested blues singer Gertrude "Ma" Rainey in her home for hosting a so-called “lesbian party.” While Rainey had been married to a man for 21 years, she was known to take female lovers. It was even rumored that she was romantically involved with another famous blueswoman, Bessie Smith, who bailed Rainey out of jail the following day.

Ma Rainey and the Wildcats Jazz Band, 1923. Bernice Johnson Reagon
Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Getting her start on the vaudeville circuit in the early 1900s, Ma Rainey made her mark as a blues performer just as the genre’s popularity hit its stride in the 1920s. By 1925, she was two years into a lucrative recording contract with Paramount Records, had worked with Louis Armstrong, and was in the middle of what would become a four-year musical partnership with Thomas Dorsey’s Wild Cats Jazz Band. Ma Rainey had earned the title “Mother of the Blues,” and she had no intention of giving it up.

Three years later, she would respond to the gossip about her sexuality sparked by her arrest with her “Prove It on Me Blues:”

“Went out last night 
With a crowd of my friends 
They must have been women 
Cause I don’t like no men”
Some have called the lesbianism and bisexuality among black female blues musicians the “open secret” of the Harlem Renaissance. While some blues singers, like Alberta Hunter and Ethel Waters, were careful to bury rumors that they, too, might be “in the life,” many more, like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Gladys Bentley, Clara Smith, and Lucille Bogan did little to conceal their relationships with women. Lucille Bogan even released a song in 1935, entitled “The B.D. Woman’s Blues” in which “B.D.” stood for “bulldagger,” a slang term for a butch lesbian. Referring affectionately to these lesbian women, Bogan sings: “They got a head like a sweet angel and they walk just like a natural man.”

Perhaps the greater secret was the blues club scene itself. The early 1900s saw a massive migration of black Americans from the South to cities in the North like Chicago and New York City. The Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan in New York proved a particularly popular destination for many migrants, who helped contribute to a flourishing art, academic, and entertainment scene that would come to be known as the “Harlem Renaissance.” Amid this atmosphere of artistic and intellectual expression, gay and lesbian African-Americans found a spirit of social freedom and acceptance that allowed them to pursue same-sex relationships with greater openness than in many other parts of the country.

And it was in the underground blues clubs of the 1920s and 30s where this sexual expression could thrive most freely. In seedy Harlem blues clubs, blueswomen like Gladys Bentley, who became famous for her masculine performances complete with cropped hair, tuxedo, and top hat, found their audiences and stage personas. For black women, who made up the majority of the popular blues singers at this time, these clubs offered an outlet to explore their sexualities and sexual desires onstage in a way that would have been denied them in their day to day lives. Blues clubs spread far beyond just New York City, and while blueswomen like Rainey and Smith tend to be associated with the Harlem Renaissance, many of these women had stronger ties to the South, Midwest, and California. Artists like Bentley toured blues clubs around the country, including San Francisco’s famous Mona’s 440 Club, a bar which marketed itself toward lesbians as the place “where girls will be boys.”

Some have suggested that it is important to not overstate the prevalence of these declarations of same sex desire in the music and performances of female blues musicians. Lesbian-themed songs make up but a small fraction of these singers’ bodies of work, the majority of which focuses instead on romances with men. Yet it is still important to acknowledge the significance of the blues club as a space where black women in the early 20th century were able to express their sexual and romantic desires without fearing for their safety. Using masculine clothing, provocative performances, and homoerotic lyrics, these blueswomen found unique ways to represent their sexuality onstage. More than that, black women blues performers were able to control how their sexuality was represented in their lyrics and performances and decide, for themselves, who they wanted to be onstage and off.

Bessie Smith, undated. Sam DeVincent Collection, African-American Music series, 
Archives Center, National Museum of American History

At the end of “Prove It on Me Blues,” Ma Rainey sings:

“Talk to the gals just like any old man 
Cause they say I do it, ain't nobody caught me 
Sure got to prove it on me.”
In these lines, Rainey coyly seems to say, “My sexuality is mine alone, and I am free to live how I please.” And perhaps this is the most important thing to remember when we talk about the lives and romances of these blueswomen. For women like Ma Rainey, the blues was a world where you could take control of your own story, where you could explore your sexuality and talk about it on your terms, where you could decide who you wanted to be and then become that person onstage each night.

For more on Ma Rainey and the other blueswomen mentioned here, watch T'Ain't Nobody's Bizness: Queer Blues Divas of the 1920s on Kanopy.

Erin Walsh, Intern
National Museum of American History, Archives Center

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