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Canadian Review of American Studies Volume 24, Number 1, Winter 1994, pp. 19-40 "The Blues Ain't Nothin' But a Woman Want to be a Man": Male Control in Early Twentieth Century Blues Music Matthew B. White 19 Blues music has been the subject of much scholarly and popular debate over the past century. The music has been subdivided and analyzed according to subject matter (songs about work, sex, urban life, rural life, etc.), geographic region/style (Piedmont, Memphis, Delta, etc.) and intended audience (household music, street music, dance music, etc.). There is one aspect of blues music, however, which has been woefully neglected, that is, the bluesmen's presentation of women. 1 This omission is particularly glaring when one considers the number of songs which focus upon male-female relationships. In preparing this paper, I analyzed over six hundred blues songs sung by men during the 1920s and 1930s. One hundred and thirteen of these songs depicted women in a manner which allowed for easy categorization (e.g. woman as gold digger, woman as unfaithful wife/lover, etc.). If we were to include all of the songs which dealt with women in a manner outside of the major categories, or dealt with the loss, or absence of women, then the total would increase to more that half of the sample. The blues singers of the 1920s and 1930s were, in many ways, a rather diverse group. Blues music originated on the cotton plantations of the Mississippi Delta during the late nineteenth century, born out of the field hollers, cries, shouts, and work chants of the slavery period. As the music spread outward from its southern birthplace, helped along by the invention of the phonograph and 78 rpm record, it was continuously reformed in response to the different tastes and traditions of the audiences and per- 20 Canadian Review of American Studies formers throughout the different regions of the United States. Although the musicians discussed here are all considered "blues singers," their singing styles and musical arrangements differed dramatically between regions, from the heavy 12-bar blues of the Mississippi Delta to the lighter ragtime fingerpicking which characterized performers in the Piedmont school. Musical accompaniment was likewise diverse, ranging from small jug-band combos popular in Memphis to the solitary slide guitar so integral to the sound of Mississippi blues. Other musical forms, including vaudeville, minstrelsy, gospel, and jazz added elements in varying proportions to the blues music of certain geographic regions. Despite the differences in musical style and choice of instrumental accompaniment , the performers possessed a number of common elements which defined them as blues singers. Most of the men and women who sang the blues belonged to the working class and performed their music for others within their socioeconomic group at various local gatherings-rent parties, picnics, street corners, "joints," and the like. Most of the people who played the blues are lost to history, since they held traditionaljobs and only played their music informally. A small number of these informal players gained a certain degree of regional notoriety which brought with it status and the chance to travel. An even smaller number of musicians made records and gained nationwide popularity, that is, popularity among African Americans throughout the United States. (During the 1920s and 1930s the major record companies presented their African-American musicians on subsidiary so-called race labels, which were aimed almost solely at the African-American market.) Only a handful of blues musicians, the most notable being Bessie Smith, were able to gather an audience which was racially and socially diverse. Blues music served an important social function within the black community during the early twentieth century. The songs, although sung by individuals, were directed at the collective, and reflected the beliefs and values of the larger group (Levine 1977, 234-35, 237). Many of the blues songs which belong to the period under discussion were not wholly original compositions, but rather consisted of phrases, verses, and lines drawn from a collective African-American oral tradition, and were assembled by the particular musician in her or his own unique way. Hazel Carby has given MatthewB. WhiteI 21 some attention to the male-female...


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