The classic female blues spanned from 1920 to 1929 with its peak from 1923 to 1925. The most popular of these singers were Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, Ethel Waters, Ida Cox, Victoria Spivey, Sippie Wallace, Alberta Hunter, Clara Smith, Edith Wilson, Trixie Smith, Lucille Hegamin and Bertha “Chippie” Hill. Hundreds of others recorded including Lizzie Miles, Sara Martin, Rosa Henderson, Martha Copeland, Bessie Jackson (Lucille Bogan), Edith Johnson, Katherine Baker, Margaret Johnson, Hattie Burleson, Madlyn Davis, Ivy Smith, Alberta Brown, Gladys Bentley, Billie and Ida Goodson, Fannie May Goosby, Bernice Edwards and Florence Mills.
They sang often backed behind their bands consisting of piano, several horns and drums. These women were pioneers in the record industry by being the first black voices recorded and also by spreading the 12-bar blues form through out the country. In terms of performing, they often wore elaborate outfits and sang of the injustices of their lives, bonding with their audience’s sorrows. Their schedules were grueling, staying on the road most of the time with tent shows in the summer and theatres during the winter. With the crash of Wall Street in 1929, the popularity of the blues singers declined. Some went back home, took up jobs or moved to Hollywood. In the ‘60s with the blues revival, Sippie Wallace, Alberta Hunter, Edith Wilson and Victoria Spivey returned to the stage.
Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, form Georgia, was the “ Mother of the Blues,” and lived from 1886-1939. She was the first woman to incorporate blues into her act of show songs and comedy. In 1902, she heard a woman singing about the man she’d lost, and quickly learned the song. From then on at each performance, she used it as her closing number calling it “the blues.” She recorded over 100 songs and wrote 24 of them herself. “Bessie (Smith and all the others who followed in time), wrote jazz historian Dan Morgenstern “learned their art and craft from Ma, directly or indirectly.” Young women followed Ma Rainey’s path in the tent show circuit, since black performers were not allowed to be in venues. Eventually most singers were booked on the T.O.B.A. (Theatre Owners Booking Association) circuit.
The most popular of these women was Tennessee-born Bessie Smith, who would become the highest-paid black artist of the 1920s. She was known as the “Empress of the Blues.” She possessed a large voice with a “T’ain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do” attitude. Bessie was a dancer before she was a singer, but was let go because her skin colour was too dark. She also struggled initially with being recorded—three companies turned her down before she was signed with Columbia. She eventually became the highest-paid black artist of the ‘20s, but by the ‘30s she was making half as much as her usual salary. She died in a car crash in 1937, at the age of 41. Lionel Hampton is quoted as saying, “Had she lived, Bessie would’ve been right up there on top with the rest of us in the Swing Era.” Mahalia Jackson and Janis Joplin both claimed to have drawn great inspiration from her singing. Her work is well documented in print as well as recording with over 160 songs currently available.
Sources: Bessie (book), The Jazz Age (book), Wikipedia
“I shall dance all my life. . . . would like to die, breathless, spent, at the end of a dance.” ~ Josephine Baker, 1927
An international star of the Jazz Age, known for her daring dances, exotic costumes, and menagerie of pets, Josephine Baker was born into poverty in St. Louis in 1906. A natural comedian with dreams of performing on stage, she talked her way into her first dance role as a determined young teen and then jumped at the opportunity to travel with a vaudeville troupe. It didn’t take long for her natural talent to shine on stage, and she made her mark as “the funny one.” Josephine exploited her dancing and performance skills, doggedly pursuing her dream of becoming a respected star. By the time she was 19, Josephine was performing in Paris, and a whole new world opened up. In a few short years she had propelled herself from a St. Louis girl with a dream to a full-fledged Parisian sensation.
Outside being a famous entertainer her sense of commitment to fighting racism and injustice grew and matured as she traveled around the world, leading her to become an outspoken participant in the US Civil Rights Movement, conduct important espionage work for the French Resistance during World War II, and adopt her “rainbow tribe”— 12 children, each from a different nationality, ethnicity, or religious group—in an effort to prove racial harmony was possible.
Baker was celebrated by artists and intellectuals of the era, who variously dubbed her the “Black Venus”, the “Black Pearl”, the “Bronze Venus”, and the “Creole Goddess”. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, she renounced her U.S. citizenship and became a French national after her marriage to French industrialist Jean Lion in 1937. She raised her children in France.
n Paris, she became an instant success for her erotic dancing, and for appearing practically nude onstage. After a successful tour of Europe, she broke her contract and returned to France in 1926 to star at the Folies Bergère, setting the standard for her future acts.
Baker performed the “Danse Sauvage” wearing a costume consisting of a skirt made of a string of artificial bananas. Her success coincided (1925) with the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs, which gave birth to the term “Art Deco”, and also with a renewal of interest in non-Western forms of art, including African. Baker represented one aspect of this fashion. In later shows in Paris, she was often accompanied on stage by her pet cheetah “Chiquita,” who was adorned with a diamond collar. The cheetah frequently escaped into the orchestra pit, where it terrorized the musicians, adding another element of excitement to the show.
She aided the French Resistance during World War II. After the war, she was awarded the Resistance Medal by the French Committee of National Liberation, the Croix de Guerre by the French military, and was named a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by General Charles de Gaulle. Baker sang: “I have two loves, my country and Paris.”
Baker refused to perform for segregated audiences in the United States and is noted for her contributions to the civil rights movement. In 1968, she was offered unofficial leadership in the movement in the United States by Coretta Scott King, following Martin Luther King Jr.‘s assassination. After thinking it over, Baker declined the offer out of concern for the welfare of her children.
On 30 November 2021, she entered the Pantheon in Paris, the first black woman to receive one of the highest honors in France. As her resting place is to remain in Monaco a cenotaph will be installed in vault 13 of the crypt in the Panthéon