Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (Anglais) Broché – 26 janvier 1999
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Un livre pour les passionnés.
Une lecture fascinante d'analyses minutieuses et intelligentes (en terme de classe, race, genre, sexualités) d'une centaine de chansons de blues de Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith et Billie Holiday avec remises en contexte, citations ... En fin d'ouvrage retranscriptions parfois inédites des chansons évoquées dans les chapitres. Fait prendre conscience de l'importance d'une culture populaire dont la portée politique et subversive est souvent oubliée / minimisée / exotisée.
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To begin with, Davis convincingly argues that Blues women were on the vanguard in breaking down taboos concerning domestic violence and male subjugation, as many Blues songs concerned these matters. Davis uses powerful works such as "Rough and Tumble Blues," "See See Rider Blues," and "Send Me to the 'Lectric Chair," to demonstrate that Blues women were willing to engage in oppositional, if allegorical, violence in the service of personal autonomy. Even man songs that seem to demonstrate acquiescence, even masochism, in the face of male abuse can be seen to have an ironic, subversive, or didactic quality that belies a simplistic surface reading.
Davis also takes on the common notion that Blues music doesn't include social protest, an interpretation that has been pushed by white commentators, such as Samuel Charters, and black commentators, such as Albert Murray. Davis argues that Blues music inherits from Slave musical culture a coded approach to naming and resistance that demands more than a surface analysis of the lyrics, and takes into account the role of music as a lyrical interlocuter. Focusing on tunes such as "Backwater Blues" and "Washwoman's Blues," Davis almost always effectively demonstrates that coded protest is still protest, and that women's blues historically anticipated and grounded mass movements in the areas of civil rights and feminism, while remaining linked with West African hermeneutic structure of naming and interpretation, such as "nommo."
In terms of Religious content, Davis forcefully recounts how women reconfigured a secular existential (or even "Devil's") music as prayer itself, magically and aesthetically conjured to exorcise emotions such as "the blues." At the same time, she harshly criticizes the Black church for adopting Christian dualisms concerning the moral status of body and spirit, which she sees as sexualized forms of racism and sexism--- since both blacks and women have been semiotically linked with earthiness and body as opposed to spirit by while male elites. Celebratory Sexuality, on the other hand, has always, according to Davis, been an oppositional aspect of black working-class consciousness. This extends beyond sexuality to an affirmation of Black folk religious life (such as Hoodoo) and crossing of class boundaries in the Blues, which Davis contends is a major reason Blues music was ignored and even distanced by Black elites during the Harlem Renaissance.
Davis's discussion of Billie Holiday is short (two chapters) but powerful, in which she argues that Holiday subversively appropriated the saccharine Tin Pan Alley love song format she was given as Slaves would have appropriated the English language upon their arrival in the North Americas. Holiday worked little in the formal Blues, but was nontheless grounded in the Blues idiom, from which she drew inspiration, and a subversive presentation of white romantic life to Black audiences. In this vein, such songs as "Strange Fruit" fit more coherently, and the ironic (and yet utopian) edge in her voice professes to the truth of Black women's lives, even in ways that on the surface seem to be feministically regressive.
There are isolated examples where Davis is less successful than at other times, but on the whole, her argumentation is strong and fearless, and her analogical and narrative analysis of the music along with lyrics adds, rather than detracts, from her argument.
The fact that all the lyrics are included is all the more reason to recommend this book. Being a white man from Norway, I may not be the best judge of language and style in the transcriptions of these lyrics, but they remain a powerful read, and they become an even stronger listening experience.
Whereas white feminists find white women's literature a valuable place to search for roots of feminism, Davis and other scholars of black American culture (in which the struggle for literacy has still not ben won) have found music to be a rich source of personal and communal histories and social commentary. So music is where she searches to find articulations of women who already lived identities in conflict with the prevailing notions of femininity. No one need fear Davis's use of the term feminist or her use of race and class to analyze these women's music. Race, class, and gender undoubtedly determined the possibilities for these women's lives.
Davis draws upon existing definitions of the blues and also expands the definition to include the "proto-feminist consciousness" of black women. Davis's discussion of the blues idiom is comprehensive. Each blues motif is carefully examined for the cultural work it does when sung by men and by women. Traveling and choosing lovers are, to Davis, reflective of the new mobility and autonomy blacks experienced from Reconstruction on. Davis also contrasts the blues' sometimes individualistic emphasis with the communal performance of spirituals. When Davis describes the blues aesthetic of Rainey and Smith, she shows their convergence with and divergence from that of black male blues singers. With this strategy, she makes it impossible to talk about the blues again without including the particular way that black women participate(d) in the blues.
The only part of the book that did not convince me was her section on Billie Holiday. Although I believe that Holiday was able to work against the often demeaning lyrics she promoted for Tin Pan Alley hacks, I find it harder to imagine Davis's point of view of Holiday's music as proto-feminist. In book format, one does not have Holiday's recordings handy to compare Davis's interpretations of her pronunciation and shading with Holiday's recorded voice. With Smith and Rainey, however, the lyrics are closely associated with the message, and Davis is better able to prove her claim. I am also not persuaded that Holiday (evaluated by her music) quite belongs in the category blueswoman. The few 12-bar blues she sang certainly fall in the tradition of Rainey and Smith. "Fine and Mellow" describes a great lover whom she'll leave nonetheless if he doesn't treat her right. "Billie's Blues" ends with the assertion that "[I'm] everything a good man needs!" However, I think that, although Holiday is to Northern jazz what Rainey and Smith were to the migration-born blues, Dinah Washington might have made a better musical comparison with Rainey and Smith. A few claims in the Holiday section prevent this otherwise flawless book from gaining five stars.
A quick mention of Davis's compilation of the previously unwritten lyrics to Rainey's and Smith's recordings: Her undertaking will provide very useful to future singers and jazz or blues critics. It is difficult to hear the lyrics on these early recordings, thus she makes a couple of mistakes. I do take issue with her spelling; she writes what Rainey and Smith sang in Black English/Ebonics in Standard English. She sometimes ruins the original sense AND sound of the lyrics when she translates them into academically acceptable language. Still, an extremely important undertaking, despite the times she misheard and miswrote the lyrics. (She admits the possibility of her mishearing the songs in her preface.) Again, Davis's analysis of Rainey and Smith must alter the way we think about the culutral significance of blues (and its outgrowth, jazz).
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