Monday, March 12, 2007
Prejudice against people with darker skin is widely documented in many cultures and stereotypes about yellow, brown, and black are still common. When the songs in this show were recorded, skin-lightening cream products ads were always seen alongside the blues record advertisements in black newspapers like the Chicago Defender. The assumption was that light skinned was automatically more attractive. Blues singers often subverted this assumption but at times reinforced it. The popular music comedy team from the 1920s, Butterbeans and Susie, sing in Brown Skin Gal about how a brown skinned girl can be trusted and is the best even though she might not have the money, status, or look as good as a yellow.
Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell have a similar take in Good Woman Blues. In It’s Heated, Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon gives his ideas about sexual stereotypes with the darkest woman coming out on top: “Now a yellow gal is like a frigid zone, brownskin's about the same. You want some good loving get yourself an old Crow Jane.” The term Crow Jane shows up in dozens of blues songs referring to dark women.
Texas Alexander subscribed to the lighter is better school in Yellow Girl Blues: “Black woman evil, brownskin evil too. Going to get me a yellow woman and see what she will do.”
Some male blues singers expressed the attitude that the high status of light-skinned women made them more difficult to deal with as romantic partners. That ideas was thar light-skinned women may be more beautiful, have more money, and a generally higher status, but they won’t treat a man well. Bo Weavil Jackson sang in Some Scream High Yellow: “Some Scream High Yellow, I scream black or brown. High yellow may mistreat you, but black won't turn you down.”
Harry Gay and Stephen Tarter from Scott County, Virginia recorded just two songs. Brownie Blues dealt with skin color. Tarter sang that women on both ends of the color spectrum should be avoided:
“Want no Jet black woman burn no bread for me
Jet black is evil and she sure might poison me
Jet Black is evil and so is yellow too
I’m so glad I’m brown skinned, don’t know what to do”
Bessie Smith seemed to use her skin color as an excuse to be wild in her 1926 recording Young Woman’s Blues: “I ain't no high yellow, I'm a deep killer brown. I ain't going to marry, ain't going to settle down.”
An individual’s place on the continuum of African-American skin color has always affected status in society and the perception of their attractiveness. Terms like High Yellow or Crow Jane may fade away or change meaning, but prejudices based on skin tone never seem to go away. These blues songs give us a glimpse about some attitudes about skin color during the pre-war period. Bluesmen expressed their preference for yellow, black, or brown in song. Sometimes “Jet Black is Evil” other times “The Blacker the Berry the sweeter the Juice”, but it seems there’s no escape from stereotypes based on skin.
Check out Wallace Thurman’s 1929 novel The Blacker the Berry for a contemporary fictional take on the “colorism” issues presented by these blues songs.
Show 25 - Yellow, Brown, or Black
Brown Skin Gal - Butterbeans and Susie
Good Woman Blues - Leroy Carr
It's Heated - Frankie 'Half-Pint' Jaxon
Yellow Girl Blues - Texas Alexander
Some Scream High Yellow - Bo Weavil Jackson
Brownie Blues - Harry Gay and Stephen Tarter
Young Woman's Blues - Bessie Smith