The Classic Blues... and the Women who Sang Them

Beginning right after the following modest advertisement, we offer some background reading to help you enjoy the award-winning video from Calliope, "Wild Women Don't Have the Blues." And we tell you how to get it.

"A brilliant film that reveals the central role of women performers in the blues."
- Dr. William A. Ferris, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

"DON'T MISS THIS SHOW -- 'Wild Women' is everything its title implies."
- The Boston Globe

"Vintage clips, some great old songs and a wealth of juicy anecdotes combine to make 'Wild Women Don't Have the Blues' AN ENJOYABLE, ENLIGHTENING HOUR."
- TV Guide


"A SUPERB hour-long examination not only of the idiom itself, but also of its social origins, evolution and impact on black America ...
- Leonard Feather, music critic and historian, Los Angeles Times

"One of the most thoughtfully researched, wisely edited
documents on music in recent memory."
- Leslie Rubinstein, entertainment writer and author, Total Television

and the women who sang them

Ma Rainey ~ Bessie Smith ~ Mamie Smith ~ Ida Cox ~ Alberta Hunter

A Calliope Fact Sheet
Copyright © Calliope Film Resources, Inc.

Student Permission | Note to Teachers

Table of Contents -- Click a chapter. Or, just start reading...

1. 1700-1865 -- Background to the Blues
2. 1865-1900 -- Emancipation and the Country Blues
3. 1900-1920s -- Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ida Cox and the Southern Circuit
4. 1907-1920 -- The Great Migration, Alberta Hunter, and the Northern Clubs
5. 1920-1931 -- The Peak Years -- Recording the Blues
6. Today -- The Classic Blues Legacy


On Valentine's Day, l920, Mamie Smith stepped to the acoustical horn in the Okeh Company recording studios, shouted out "That Thing Called Love" for the disc spinning behind the curtain in the next room, and made history with the first recording by a black woman vocalist.

"That Thing Called Love" was not authentic blues, but its immediate success led to a second recording by Smith of "Crazy Blues." This recording, a true blues, sold 75,000 copies in the first month and opened the door to a generation of leading vocalists who came to be known as the "Classic Blues" singers.

In the decade that followed, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, Alberta Hunter and many other great women vocalists, who had already transformed the blues from a local folk tradition into a performing art, now established it in the broader popular culture.

The blues women ushered black culture into the American mainstream, "indelibly recreating a world of black experience and making visible the lives and aspirations of millions of black Americans," in the words of Sandra Lieb, biographer of Ma Rainey.

Reaching its peak during the birth and growth of the recording industry, the music of these women forms an irreplaceable but little-known chapter in the history of popular culture. It encompasses many traditions--

The Classic Blues made a significant contribution to the development of jazz and blues as mainstream popular music, and to the eventual discovery and recording of male country blues singers who would later become "classic" in their own right.

And these blues bore witness to critical social changes experienced by black Americans in the first decades of this century -- the Great Migration northward, World War I, and the early years of the Depression.


1. Background to the Blues (1700-1865)

No one knows who named the blues or when, but their origins reach back directly to early Afro-American work songs and the spirituals of black Christians, two forms of music which historically have expressed the early black experience in America.

In the course of adapting to a Euro-American culture, black musicians and singers borrowed from Scottish ballads, Methodist and Baptist hymns, Western traditions of instrumental accompaniment, and popular American music of the vaudeville stage.

Weaving these diverse elements into the fabric of surviving African vocal and musical traditions over the course of many generations, they fashioned a distinctly new music that would be given the name "blues."

Africa survived in the music of early black Americans and was passed down to the blues in distinctive ways that set it apart from European musical traditions. For example --

Plantation Songs and the "Devil's Music"

American slaves perpetuated the value of music as an essential and meaningful accompaniment to everyday activities as well as significant happenings within the community.

In her history "The Music of Black Americans," Eileen Southern identifies three types of plantation songs in which the African tradition of using music on all occasions and of classifying the music according to function was most clearly reflected --

The work songs may offer the best example of how African rhythms survived to resurface later in the blues:

Oh, Lawd, I'm tired, uuh
Oh, Lawd, I'm tired, uuh

To the improvised work songs -- the shouts and "field hollers" that accompanied plantation labor, communicated between workers, and expressed personal feelings of the moment -- American slaves introduced what would be later recognized as the distinctive sound of the blues. In additon to the falsetto whoops, hollers, and field cries, there was now the sound of sorrow, mournful expressions of sadness and weariness, sometimes lightened with a wistful irony.

An observer described these feelings in an 1859 narrative--

"The tone of the voice in which this boat-song was sung was inexpressibly plaintive, and bearing such a melancholy tune, and such affecting words, produced a very pathetic effect. I saw tears in the eyes of young ladies, and could scarcely restrain my own."

The mournful tone of work songs also found expression in the spirituals, the long, slow chants that sounded forth from religious gatherings. Articulating deeply felt emotions that later gave soul to the blues, these songs just as often voiced the spirit of assertion and survival that gave support to the slave community, and they added a more melodic character to the music.

As African religions were supplanted by Christianity, blacks adapted their religious music as well, keeping American words to hymns and incorporating melodies but changing the rhythms, harmonies, and stresses of speech and adding the traditional "call and response."

The same blue notes and stop times that were later emphasized in jazz can all be found in this early religious music of American slaves.

Beyond the music of work and worship, there was "the devil's music" -- the fiddle songs, juba dances, and corn songs of harvest season. Outlawed by church elders, this was music that entertained.

"Clotilda whirled herself among the crowd of dancers till, having gained the opposite side to that at which she entered, she turned and faced them, and began to recite the following verses in a shrill sing-song voice, keeping time to the measure ... by beating her hands sometimes against her sides, and patting the ground with her foot...

Juber left and Juber right;
Juber dance with all your might.

...And so the performance went on, with increasing uproar and confusion until the Juber dancers ended up in a struggling heap amid unrestrained laughter by everyone."

It was this "devil's music" -- the secular music of pleasure and entertainment -- that carried the blues beyond the plantation culture and into the larger community during the years following Emancipation.

2. Emancipation, the Country Blues, and Women Vocalists (1865-1900)

Emancipation brought social changes for black Americans that were reflected almost immediately in their music. With the new freedom to move about and the need to find employment there came a fuller life, beyond the field and the church, that needed expression.

In the 1870s there were thousands of black migrant workers and wanderers -- almost always men -- on the move throughout the South, singing their ballads or "ballits," shouting out hollers and moans, calling jigs for Saturday night dances and parties, and generally providing the "devil's music" for community occasions.

It was during the next two decades of social transition that the blues began to be formalized.

Still expressive of black Americans' personal experience and feelings and using imagery that was generally rural, the songs of these traveling men nevertheless now began to reflect new complexities of a free life -- leaving home, traveling the rails, looking for new kinds of work, the importance of money to the freed man.

Different from the more functional work songs or religious spirituals, this was secular music performed primarily for pleasure, for the group or for oneself.

The country blues singers (as they are now called) accompanied themselves on guitars, banjos, harmonicas, or homemade instruments including axes and hammers.

With the increased use of instrumental accompaniment, the evolution towards "performance," and the spreading of local versions of songs over a wider area as the singers traveled from place to place, a standardization of the songs began to occur.

It was during this time that the country shouts and "ballits" were formalized into the 12-bar, three-line, repetitive stanza structure now recognized as the "classic" blues form.

When a woman gets the blues she hangs her head and cries,
When a woman gets the blues she hangs her head and cries,
But when a man gets the blues, he grabs a train and flies.

Out of this era, it was the woman vocalist who emerged to move the blues toward professionalism. In contrast to the male country blues singers, women made up virtually all of the performers who created the Classic Blues. For African American women, singing the blues in public became a professional way of earning a living, not a way of easing labor or a means of personal expression.

These women began to find work as entertainers, not like the solitary country singers following the migrant work circuit, but with the traveling minstrels and vaudeville shows and the Theatre Owners Booking Association (TOBA) -- a theatrical circuit at the turn of the century that kept black performers constantly on the move from Florida to Texas and from Oklahoma to Mississippi.

An established avenue of employment for blacks, the traveling shows provided mobility for new generations no longer tied to the plantation, offered women a rare alternative to working as domestics, and promised a kind of glamour and recognition not possible before.

Along with comics, dance routines, wrestlers, ragtime players, wire-walkers and cakewalkers, women blues singers were hired to play the small towns and plantations that dotted the South. It was an important tradition for the Classic Blues women, providing their apprenticeship as professional performers.

The Classic Blues singers Rosa Henderson, Ida Cox, Clara Smith, Bessie Smith, and of course Ma Rainey all came up by this route. And it was their rise to public recognition that proved so critical to the history of the blues, bringing it to the threshold of mainstream culture.

Click to continue...
3. 1900-1920s -- Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ida Cox and the Southern Circuit
4. 1907-1920 -- The Great Migration, Alberta Hunter, and the Northern Clubs
5. 1920s -- The Peak Years -- Recording the Blues
6. Today -- The Classic Blues Legacy

Students! You have our permission to quote from (not copy from) this page provided that you acknowledge it in your bibliography as follows:
 Calliope Film Resources. "The Classic Blues and the Women Who Sang Them." Copyright 2000 CFR. . [And add the date on which you visited this web page.]

Teachers! The Blues illustrate important points about American popular culture and African American history. Use the one-hour video from Calliope along with this Fact Sheet to enhance your curriculum.

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Updated Jan 1 2009