Music is a medium through which I analyze social phenomenons and political shifts. It is a teller of time and transforms as people do; ever transient and malleable. With the advent of Black Heritage Month, I would like to provide a history lesson on the early days of jazz and blues.
Representative of transgressive realities such as queer relationships and gender-bending performers. Undeniably, the majority of todays music in the West must pay thanks to these musicians. A new trend was emerging amongst the youth in underground clubs and speak-easies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which had parents concerned and youngsters thrilled to the bone.
The concept of rebellion was romantic, enticing, yet dangerous in a society where Victorian morale was still strictly in place. Nervous mothers and fathers sent letters asking for advice, and requesting editorials to demean and bemoan these spaces as immoral and deviant.
Pioneers of the blues like musician Ma Rainey wrote lyrics such as, “It’s true I wear a collar and a tie…Talk to the gals just like any old man.” At the time, this sort of content was scandalous and threatened mainstream society with its seemingly anti-Christian messages insinuating queer activities.
Americans and Canadians alike were frazzled and stand-offish, but there was a definite sense of intrigue. Of course, there was a reason that blues and jazz music was appropriated later into clean “swing music” by upper-class white folk in the 1940s and ‘50s.
It was a fascinating dissonance between this upheld Victorian moral structure and its stark contrast to what women in the blues were partaking in. Bull-daggers, lady-men, flashy dress, seductive moans and groans … it was all a part of the walk and talk in the speakeasy scene. They danced, they drank and they defied societal norms.
Ma Rainey’s aforementioned song, “Prove it on Me Blues,” encompasses much of the blues consciousness amongst women who were transgressing gender norms.
Bessie Smith, who trained under Rainey, became the Queen of Blues alongside Rainey who was coined the Mother of Blues, and sang, “When you see two women walking hand in hand, just look ‘em over and try to understand: / They’ll go to those parties – have the lights down low – only those parties where women can go.”
Society was concerned. What did this all mean? Music, and art of any form, has always challenged concrete moral structures.
The Victoria Era had come to an end, and the century had just turned. Dresses were getting shorter, and times were changing. Women were going to underground speakeasies in glamourous,flashy attire, drinking with each other, and forming close bonds.
These things were happening under the eye of the streetlights, and parents were worried for the sanctity of their children and of the strength of their Christian upbringings being shattered.
Performer Smith was known to shout things like, “I got 12 women on this show, and I can have one every night if I want it,” between her songs.
This underground world of supposed deviance was actually the roots and home of early blues and jazz, and the hub in which queer culture was becoming more and more accepted. This was a stark contrast to the permeating homophobia that existed during this time.
There were close, passionate relations between the women in the audience and the female performers. Those who attended a performance by Ma Rainey could expect her to don a tuxedo, short wig, and flirt openly with members in the audience.
In a nation where same-sex relationships were punishable by arrest, it was understandable that these ladies did not wish to make their liaisons apparent.In the midst of the scandal and threat from the Victorian class perspective, the Americas were witnessing an overwhelming trend of venues, clubs, and underground speakeasies boasting of music and talent.
Women like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and gentlemen such as Louis Armstrong were filling the airwaves with their grandiose voices, and, politics and morality aside, it was a time for ruckus and change.
Through this historical lens, I have found the intersection of race, queer politics, and transgression of Victorian Society to be extremely fascinating, and also indicative of how a cultural movement perceived as taboo is often a a phenomenon for necessary change.