Freedom and Feminism in Bessie

The blues was a type of music that focused on an absolute freedom that other genres did not. It was sexual, raunchy, and erotic. It refused to create a storyline of a perfect home and romantic life. Instead, it did quite the opposite. Angela Davis focuses on the lyrics of Bessie Smith songs in which failed relationships are highlighted, in which cheating and beating is not only accepted, but expected. Davis writes, “…the overwhelming majority of Bessie Smith’s 160 available songs allude to rejection, abuse, desertion, and unfaithful lovers…” but that her attitude is “…far from resignation and despair” (21).

This idea is shown throughout the film Bessie. She is depicted as a real force. She is strong, talented, and not afraid to show it. But more than that, she is an independent woman. Her independence is shown in her relationships with men as well as women. At the beginning of the movie, Bessie has a relationship with Lucille. However, although they are obviously intimate, and very close, she is unable to tell Lucile that she loves her. This reinforces her autonomy. Bessie was also brave enough to have this relationship with a woman, which was not a wholly accepted practice at that time. Her relationship with Lucille not only proves her independence, but also her overt sexual desire that she is not afraid to satisfy. Her music reflects these different points, as well. She sang, “There ain’t nothin’ I can say/ That folks don’t criticize me/ But I’m going to do just as I want to anyway/ And don’t care if they all despise me” (31). These lyrics prove that she is confident and carefree in how others see her.

Bessie’s relationship with Jack Gee also reflects her independence, as well as how strong she really is. When he attempts to start dating her, Bessie assures him that he is “trying out”, and forces him to work hard for her. It is not until he stabs a man for her that she finds herself truly interested. His violence, and chaotic nature, is something she finds sexually pleasing. This expresses the points made earlier in this post, as well as Angela Davis’ article. However, her passion is obviously unfulfilled by only Jack Gee. The movie depicts her being unfaithful to him. In Bessie’s song, “Easy Come, Easy Go Blues”, she sang “If my sweet man trifles, or if don’t/ I’ll get someone to love me anytime he won’t” (39). These lyrics suggest that she is not only open, but partial to infidelity. However, Bessie is clearly irritated by the fact that Jack Gee regularly cheats on her.

Many of Bessie Smith’s lyrics show her anger towards unfaithful men. Many of these songs depict violence towards the men that have wronged her. She sang, “I got my opinion and my man won’t act right/ So I’m gonna get hard on him right from this very night/ Gonna get me a gun long as my right arm/ Shoot that man because he done me wrong” (35). Again, her lyrics allow her to have power and aggression, while making the male force seem weak. In this way, Bessie’s music displays a firm sense of freedom, and an undeniable feminist perspective.

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