- Staging the Blues: From Tent Shows to Tourism by Paige A. McGinley
Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, the “Mother of the Blues,” staged a spectacular entrance in her live performances of the 1920s. Invisible to the audience, her voice emerged from a massive Victrola, which appeared to be playing a large record, presumably meant to be one of Rainey’s recordings for Paramount. Singing “Moonshine Blues,” Rainey “emerged from the boxy set piece, glittering in a famously extravagant gown and jewels, to the great delight of her audience” (31). Rainey’s use of theatrical techniques, including her glamorous appearance and her exploitation of audience expectations for both recording technology and live performance, might appear contrary to the typical chronicle of the blues. In Staging the Blues, Paige McGinley simultaneously rehearses the standard narrative of the blues’ putative origins and critically restages this narrative. She contends that the blues developed amidst the “theatrical tradition of southern black entertainment” (7), especially tent shows that employed a variety format of vaudevillian humor, ragtime, monologues, Tin Pan Alley songs, dance, blackface minstrelsy, and what would come to be known as the blues (85). That Rainey’s remarkable stage entrance came as the culmination of a variety show emphasizes the main thrust of Staging the Blues: “black vernacular blues have moved in tune and in time with theatrical conventions since the moments of their earliest emergence” (4). [End Page 113]
Across four chapters, McGinley explores how a “feminized” theatrical blues has been binarized with a masculine authentic blues (24), a tale in which the lone, wandering bluesman figure comes to occlude the foremothers of the genre, including Rainey and Bessie Smith, as well as their female successors, like Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Revealing the enmeshment of gender and genre at the heart of the blues narrative is only one of McGinley’s many objectives, but this insight is particularly relevant in the first chapter’s consideration of Rainey and Smith. These blues women’s performance tactics included expert dramaturgy, which facilitated their negotiations between stage subjectivity and offstage formations of race and gender. In a characteristically shrewd argument, McGinley demonstrates how Smith and Rainey embraced the roles of “actress” and “star,” which “operated as a strategic refusal of the roles they were expected to play” (51). In a skillful manipulation of the pernicious mammy role, Bessie Smith “used her broom to comically sweep the chorus line of young girls off the stage . . . leaving her alone on the stage,” as befitting a star of her caliber (53). Using costuming and quick-changes, these blues women also transformed into figures of opulent royalty, deploying performance to denaturalize the mammy. Rainey and Smith used theatrical double-codings, McGinley argues, to take advantage of “the opportunities that live performance offered for play and multisignification” (52).
Staging the Blues documents how the mythology of the impoverished bluesman from the rural South was itself a sort of theatrical frame put in place by white folklorists who fashioned what Hazel Carby calls the “mythologies of blues masculinity” (qtd. in McGinley 24). Folklorists John and Alan Lomax used the techniques of staging that they and other “authenticity-obsessed revivalists” (83) had been attempting to disavow, refashioning the artists they claimed to discover into amateur naturals. One such “discovery” is the subject of the second chapter: Huddie Ledbetter. Better known as Lead Belly (a stage name he disliked), Ledbetter had been performing professionally for decades before his famous encounter with the Lomaxes at Louisiana’s Angola Prison. Ledbetter exhibited a prodigious talent for choreography, including a “duck hunt” dance which used “a cane or broomstick to ‘shoot’ in the air over the heads of the audience” (90). Yet the Lomaxes compelled Ledbetter to perform as an “instinctive, untutored” bluesman “whose musical gifts were a supposedly natural outgrowth of his blackness, incarceration and forced labor” (91). Ledbetter did not always play along in the Lomax-directed performances, ultimately refusing “to wear his prison clothes on stage,” repudiating the carceral costuming that masqueraded as naturally black (111).
Ledbetter’s struggle with staged...