Thursday, September 22, 2005

Show 3 - Lesbian Blues



Male guitar players get most of the attention in blues discussion. I thought I’d devote a little time to the women. Particularly to the women who like other women. There's a treasury of blues songs by and about lesbians. Lucille Bogan recording under the name Bessie Jackson, accompanied by pianist Walter Roland from 1935 recorded one of the best. She's talking about bull dykes or bull daggers with B.D. Woman’s Blues:



Comin' a time, B.D. women they ain't going to need no men
Comin' a time, B.D. women they ain't going to need no men
Cause they way treat us is a lowdown dirty sin

B.D. women, you sure can't understand
B.D. women, you sure can't understand
They got a head like a sweet angel and they walk just like a natural
man


B.D. women, they all done learned their plan
B.D. women, they all done learned their plan
They can lay their jive just like a natural man

B.D. women, B.D. women, you know they sure is rough
B.D. women, B.D. women, you know they sure is rough
They all drink up plenty whiskey and they sure will strut their stuff

B.D. women, you know they work and make their dough
B.D. women, you know they work and make their dough
And when they get ready to spend it, they know they have to go

Ma Rainey was the first superstar of the classic blues women. She was a married woman, of course married to Pa Rainey, but in the 1920s, her love of women was no secret. She was arrested in 1925 after a police raid at a party where several women including Ma were found together naked and having sex. In Prove It on Me while backed up by a sort of a jazz jug band that featured Thomas Dorsey she sings about the elusiveness of her sexuality and her feelings toward men and women.



Went out last night had a great big fight, everything seemed to go all wrong
I looked up, to my surprise, the gal I was with was gone
Where she went I don't know, I mean to follow everywhere she goes

Folks said I'm crooked, I didn't know where she took it, I want the whole world to know
They say I do it, ain't nobody caught me
Sure got to prove it on me
Went out last night with a crowd of my friends
They must have been women 'cause I don't like no men

It's true I wear a collar and a tie
Make the wind blow all the while
But they say I do it, ain't nobody caught me
They sure got to prove it on me

They say I do it, ain't nobody caught me
Sure got to prove it on me

I went out last night with a crowd of my friends
It must have been women 'cause I don't like no men.
Wear my clothes just like a fan
Talk to the gals just like any old man
'Cause they say I do it, ain't nobody caught me
Sure got to prove it on me
Ma Rainey’s most famous disciple was Bessie Smith, whose sexuality was equally tough to nail down. She openly slept with at least one female singer in her band and allegedly had a sexual relationship with a gay male piano player and songwriter named Porter Grainger in addition to a variety of men. Foolish Man Blues doesn’t reveal anything more about her sexuality but it does have some interesting takes on gender:


Men sure is deceitful and they's gettin' worser every day
Men sure is deceitful and they's gettin' worser every day
Act like a bunch of women, they's just-a gab, gab, gabbin' away
There's two things got me puzzled, there's two things I can't stand
There's two things got me puzzled, there's two things I can't stand
A mannish actin' woman and a skippin' twistin' woman actin' man

Gladys Bentley was an openly gay singer who was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance. She dressed in a very masculine fashion, often in tuxedos. She once sent out announcements reporting that she’d married a white woman in New Jersey. By the 1950s, a more conservative social climate led her to recant her openness, and she claimed to have fixed her sexuality with a series of medical treatments. She married a man.
Singer Billy Mitchell was able to straddle the line between blues and vaudeville in a way similar to Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. He recorded a fun number Two Old Maids in a Folding Bed

Two old maids in a folding bed
One turned over to the other and said
I need some loving, that's just what I need

Two old maids in a folding bed
One turned over to the other and said
Kiss Me, Why not kiss me?

Two old maids in a folding bed
One turned over to the other and said
Oh you know you're driving me crazy
What can I do? What can I do for

Two old maids in a folding bed
One turned over to the other and said
Yes, yes, we have no bananas
We have no bananas for

Two old maids in a folding bed
One turned over to the other and said
Keep your sunny side up, just keep your sunny side up

...

Lesbians were common on the classic blues scene of the 1920s and 1930s with some of the singers I finished tonight and others like Alberta Hunter. They lived in an environment where their sexuality could at times be flaunted, at other times it had to be hidden. The songs reflect this. Their stage shows did even moreso. Whatever they were representing, most of these performers never stopped entertaining and good music.

Songs:
B.D. Woman’s Blues - Lucille Bogan
Prove It On Me - Ma Rainey
Foolish Man Blues - Bessie Smith
Bed Spring Poker - Gladys Bentley
Two Old Maids - Billy Mitchell

4 comments:

VeloDiablo said...

I just discovered your podcast on iTunes. It's a great show, and I look forward to each new episode.

ramble on,

kent

Anonymous said...

I have to agree. It is terrific! Please, keep them coming!

Tine

berry mcaulkener said...

dude who ever wrote this rocks! thank you

Music. said...

Can you send me lyrics to Glady's Bentley's worried blues? I cannot find them anywhere.

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