Do I “Gotta Right to Sing the [Queer] Blues”?

I was a miserable, mediocre violinist, and the day my “Young Artist Program” scholarship ended in high school was the day I allowed myself to put down the instrument for good. That isn’t to say I cut music out of my life entirely, of course, and like many people I know who’ve studied music intensively, I rerouted my musical capacities to another channel. On a whim I enrolled in a jazz voice class in college, and discovered I enjoyed it more than I’d ever enjoyed the entirety of my thirteen-plus-years as a violinist. But even after I’d shifted my focus completely from violin to jazz singing, I still found myself telling people I was a violinist when they asked “what I played.”

While I may have hated playing violin, I’ll admit I took a secret, delicious pride in the authority that came with telling people I played violin for thirteen years. I loved how impressive the instrument itself (romantic, virtuosic), coupled with the length of time I’d studied, sounded. Perhaps in an effort to bolster my ego, and re-stake my claim as violinist, I set up a lesson with a violin teacher at Bard– only to quit immediately after the first 60-minute lesson. As a compromise, I enrolled in classical voice lessons. These I quit after a semester.

I was far more reluctant to refer to myself as a singer, much less a jazz vocal singer, than I was to refer to myself as a violinist. To admit it embarrassed me. I felt like a trope– the girl singer. I felt like I was regressing, musically. I worried I wouldn’t be taken seriously as a musician. It seems I worried with good cause. My voice teacher, perhaps in an effort to combat the popular stereotype of non-classical singers as untrained, narcissistic, musically illiterate, and perpetually off-key, might introduce her class with this joke: How do you know a singer is at the door? She can’t find her key, and she doesn’t know how to come in. She continues: This is a class that teaches you how not to be a “chick singer.” It’s not a phrase I’ve heard before, but I know immediately what she’s talking about.

Musicologist Suzanne Cusick’s article, “On Performances of Gender and Sex,” offers one way of analyzing the origins of the trope and its pervasiveness. For Cusick, “Song” is a set of rules that participants submit to in order to remain legible as singers. Additionally, the process of Singing requires a willingness to remain highly attuned to the body, particularly parts of the body such as the diaphragm and pelvic floor, leading Cusick to describe Song as a “deep-body” practice. Women, of course, have stereotypically and historically been thought of as intrinsically tied up with the body, leading to depictions of women as hormonal and hysterical; intuitive and illogical. Men, by contrast, paragons of knowledge and reason, refuse any such interaction with the body, and those men who do choose to sing are characterized by the strained, harsh sound of their voices, signalling a closing of an “orifice” they don’t allow to be “penetrated.” Cusick’s article would explain why I had no such qualms about representing myself as a violinist. My ability to play the violin signifies a mastery over “objects of material culture” that is intelligible as masculine, and thus, powerful.

For my first semester studying jazz voice, I opted to sing Nina Simone’s version of “I Want a Little Sugar In My Bowl” over traditional jazz standards, hoping to justify my choice by identifying it as a blues song. I did my research and came up with even better results– I discovered the song was actually her rendition of the song “I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl” by a woman named Bessie Smith. (Even better– the original was even dirtier than Simone’s. Embarrassingly, it was only after discovering Bessie that I learned the meaning of the song’s title (sugar = semen, bowl = vagina), and why the drummer I rehearsed with stopped rehearsal to ask my teacher if she was “really going to allow [me] to sing this song.”)

I was so excited to discover the existence of this raunchy, Black, queer, female blues singer, and even more so to discover a pantheon of them (!) that included women such as Ma Rainey and Gladys Bentley. As a queer woman of color, I wanted to find a way to honor them; as a jazz singer (there, I said it!) I figured it only made sense to perform their songs.

Initially, I wanted to sing Lucille Bogan’s “BD Woman’s Blues” in addition to Ma Rainey’s “Prove It On Me Blues.” These were two of the few songs written in the 1920s that explicitly discussed queerness. But as I set myself to the task of learning these songs, I found myself pestered by a statement that I never fully reconciled in the Coulombe reading assigned towards the beginning of the semester. Of contemporary blues singer Candye Kane, she writes:

“Candye Kane challenges the ghosts of racism that inhabit the blues-woman arena precisely because she is white, she is large, and yet she maintains her right to be raunchy, insatiable, and desirable. The use of a traditionally African-American form to challenge many white American notions of what is “normal” sexually and physically is a powerful feminist statement… [A]s a middle-class, married, white suburban mother, she highlights the incongruity of the very stereotypes she is breaking.”

I understand what Coulombe is trying to say here, but I can’t help but feel the argument wasn’t fully realized. White women’s bodies aren’t clouded by the stereotypes of hypersexuality that Black women’s bodies are, which is why Coulombe argues Kane “challenges the ghost of racism”– Kane’s music demonstrates that White women can be raunchy too. But isn’t it exactly Kane’s whiteness that allows her to get away with this? Not to mention she asserts her abundant sexuality through assuming an “African American [musical] form.”

Still, the possibility of a contemporary singer challenging historical ghosts intrigued me. What did it mean for me to sing these songs? What was I challenging? What was I abetting? What was I desecrating?

Musicologist Sherri Tucker’s article, “When Did Jazz Go Straight? A Queer Question for Jazz Studies,” makes a potential “desecration” of my own very clear. By her logic, my decision to focus exclusively on examples of queer culture, and showcasing them to the exclusion of other cultures of the 1920s perceived as normative, is a limiting choice that, worse, “replicates the in/out binary of the closet,” and allows the hegemonic structures of heterosexuality to remain unchallenged. She astutely notes that this approach too often leads to romanticization of marginalized bodies that are already burdened with projection and fantasy, and exploited by scholars as a means of rethinking gender, or sex, or race (Tucker 2). It’s obvious she knows of whom she speaks too well, for she strikes right at the heart of my project when she reminds us that to buy into the notion of a queer-versus-straight jazz history dupes scholars into, let’s say, championing queer blues songs as instances of gay pride, when “curiosity and spectacle may have operated at least partially in the construction of straight lines” (Tucker 3).

Justifying Tucker’s claim (and ruining the purposes of my project in the meantime) Faderman writes in her book that bisexuality was likely considered among “sophisticated heteros” as “interesting and provocative,” was seen in women as “super-sexy,” and as marketable shock value (Faderman 75), perhaps explaining the prominent and thinly-veiled (if veiled at all) reference to Ma Rainey’s bisexuality on the cover art of her record for “Prove It On Me,” where she flirts in full drag with women on a street corner under the watch of a policeman. Even those disgusted with the concept of bisexuality cultivated a tolerant facade in order to signal their urbane sensibilities. The singers were well aware of bisexuality’s position within these circles. In her analysis of “Prove It On Me,” Faderman argues the song’s characterization of the lesbian is caricatured, setting up the lesbian singer as both “admirable” and a “freak,” providing “sophisticated heteros” the excitement of listening to a progressive song that mitigates its own queerness.

It’s this line of thinking that prompted me to change my second choice of song from Lucille Bogan’s “BD Woman’s Blues” to Bessie Smith’s first hit, “Downhearted Blues,” as an effort to resist the potential for queer exoticism– although it is true that the reason I’m singing the music of these musicians at all is because I want to support and showcase queer women of color, perhaps already a mark in Sherri Tucker’s book.

There is a lot to be gained from a closer look at Bogan’s “B.D. Woman’s Blues”– one wonders about the marketability of Bogan’s caricature of the “rough,” “strutting,” “whiskey-drinking” B.D. woman, for example. But I’m more interested in “Downhearted Blues” both for its content and its historical context. In performances, Smith treated the gender pronouns of “Downhearted Blues” as interchangeable, making clear her bisexuality. What interests me in this switch is how it affects the role of Smith’s “mistreating” lover. In this case, scholarly debate about whether the overwhelming presence of the abusive male in women’s blues narratives either a) emboldens women in its creation of a new public arena for discussion of women’s private lives (Davis), or b) simply continues to demonstrate male power over women (Ferguson, responding to Davis), is a moot point. This isn’t to deny the existence of domestic violence within same-sex relationships, of course, but to point out that “Downhearted Blues,” and Smith’s interchangeable pronouns in performance, elude easy binarization of patriarchal-or-not discourse. Smith’s use of pronouns also makes me wonder which pronouns she used for which situations, bringing me back to Faderman’s reminder that blues singers were well aware of the marketability of their orientation. The recorded version of “Downhearted Blues,” unsurprisingly, uses male pronouns, likely the most “marketable” option for a more widespread audience.

Contributions such as Faderman’s are welcome reminders that the blues is mired in a historical context that is in many ways very different from the historical context Black nationalists situate the form within. After reading about Amiri Baraka’s Blues People, which argues that the blues is a quintessentially African-American idiom, my project began to seem well-meaning, but naive, and possibly colonialist. In the book, he famously asserts, “The idea of a white blues singer seems an even more violent contradiction of terms than the idea of a middle-class blues singer” (Baraka 1963). When I worriedly message a musician friend, “HELP my project seems more and more naive the more Black nationalists I read you yknow??” he essentially paraphrases Jeffrey B. Ferguson when he types back: “I think the more black nationalists I read, the more unnecessary abstraction is injected into blues music… People often forget that most musicians were just tryna make a buck. Thats why i dont think u can talk about the blues as some abstract concept, situated outside of its social and political climate its far too complicated…. I just think ppl have to be careful about imposing a secular, modern, and liberal ethic on an art form that was largely apolitical.” Ferguson’s essay, “A Blue Note on Black American Literary Criticism and the Blues,” offers a number of examples that challenge the way [writers such as Houston Baker use the blues to perform] the fundamental job of an “essence, even as it floats in a conceptual hall of mirrors that deflects every attempt at definition.” The blues’ quintessential Africanness Ferguson challenges by recalling patriotic blues lyrics, and describing the conditions that lead to the blues’ creation as conditions that could only have occurred in America. He reminds us that it is difficult to use the blues to oppose consumerism when its history is, in some parts, decidedly commercial (again, see Faderman). He reminds blues purists that the nature of the blues is to cross-fertilize, as even blues in its most rural form often referenced the urban forms musicians heard over the radio. And he reminds us that though blues lyrics often deal with situations that are easily politicized, “its appeal rests largely in not taking the bait… Instead, it emphasized most the internal resources of the individual to affirm life, even in the darkest times.”

***

There is so much more that I could consider in this essay– I could look more closely at drag, perhaps, or consider these blues singers as “lesbian phalluses”– but then again, there is only so much time. Ultimately, it’s my hope that in undertaking this kind of research, both historical and theoretical, my performances of blues songs now and going forward will be performances that are cognizant and respectful of the blues’ history. I want to be a singer attuned to the blues’ importance in Black history and studies, even as I, an Asian, “middle-class blues singer,” perform the blues from a very different vantage point. But I also want to be a singer who at the same time doesn’t enshrine the blues, recognizing its very specific historical context and the ways its meaning changes over time.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

Cusick, Suzanne. “On Musical Performances of Sex and Gender.” Audible Traces: Gender, Identity, and Music. Zürich: Carciofoli, 1999. N. pag. Print.

“Down-Hearted Blues.” Down-Hearted Blues. American Studies at the University of Virginia, n.d. Web. 17 Dec. 2015.

Ferguson, Jeffrey B. “A Blue Note on Black American Literary Criticism and the Blues.” Amerikastudien / American Studies 55.4, African American Literary Studies: New Texts, New Approaches, New Challenges (2010): 699-714. JSTOR. Web. 17 Dec. 2015.

Faderman, Lillian. Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-century America. New York: Columbia UP, 1991. Print.

Rudinow, Joel. “Race, Ethnicity, Expressive Authenticity: Can White People Sing the Blues?” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 52.1 (1994): 127. Web.

Tucker, Sherrie. “When Did Jazz Go Straight?” Critical Studies in Improvisation 4.2 (2008): n. pag. Web. 15 Dec. 2015.

 

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