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 Post subject: Re: The Blues.
PostPosted: Fri Nov 08, 2019 4:34 pm 
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lapsed maps wrote:
let's cut to the chase,
watch this thing:

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!!!

One of the best music documentaries hands down.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jSRdQgidCHY


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 Post subject: Re: The Blues.
PostPosted: Sun Nov 10, 2019 7:53 am 
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Location: Oregon
Bulldykers and lady lovers: the rumors about lesbian blues singers were all true
Harlem’s open secret and the renaissance of American music

Meagan Day
Jul 1, 2016

https://timeline.com/lesbian-blues-harlem-secret-f3da10ec2334

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Bessie Smith, 1936. (Carl Van Vechten/Library of Congress)

“Comin’ a time, B.D. women they ain’t going to need no men,” sang Lucille Bogan in 1935. B.D. was short for bulldagger, the black slang term for a butch lesbian.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_nmrWB1ovQ0&feature=youtu.be

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

Having debuted in the bawdy black vaudeville scene of 1920s New York, Bogan was comfortable making people uncomfortable. As a blues singer, she was about as blunt as they came. She wrote songs about her experiences as a sex worker, her encounters with violent men, her drinking dependency — and, in “B.D. Woman Blues,” her sexual affinity for women.

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And yet, hardly an eyelash was batted. Not only was “B.D. Woman Blues” tamer than many Lucille Bogan songs, but by that point lesbianism was old news in blues circles. Back in 1928, Ma Rainey had beaten her to the punch with a song called “Prove It On Me”:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=srSLnF8xcj8

“Went out last night with a crowd of my friends. They must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men. It’s true I wear a collar and a tie… Talk to the gals just like any old man… Don’t you say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me. You sure got to prove it on me.”

The song was a response to rumors about Rainey’s lesbianism, which circulated after she was arrested in 1925 for participating in an orgy with multiple women. Rainey had been picked up at the police station by blues singer Bessie Smith, the highest-paid black entertainer in the entire country, who was also known to sleep with women. Sam Chatom, who played guitar for Ma Rainey, was of the opinion that Rainey and Bessie Smith were themselves involved. “I believe she was courting Bessie,” he said. “If Bessie’d be around, if she’d get to talking to another man, she’d run up. She didn’t want no man talking with her.”

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Ma Rainey (Wikimedia)

While that rumor was never corroborated, Bessie Smith was no doubt bisexual, and had many affairs with women while on the road, away from her husband. One night she was overheard snapping at her lover Lillian Simpson, “The hell with you, bitch. I got twelve women on this show and I can have one every night if I want it.” She later 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.”

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Left: Ethel Waters later in life (Wikimedia). Center: Big Mama Thornton, 1981 (Los Angeles Public Library) Right: Bessie Smith, 1936. (Getty)

Blues found its footing during the Harlem Renaissance, a time of great social upheaval and experimentation. The early 20th century saw a mass migration of black people from the post-slavery South to cities in the North and West. In New York City, Harlem experienced the biggest influx of new black residents, and the neighborhood became the nation’s nexus for black art and culture. As people began to reimagine a life very different from that of their parents and grandparents (many of whom had been slaves), Harlem became a sanctuary for new ideas about how to live, and was characterized by a unique atmosphere of social permissiveness.

“Many prominent participants in the Renaissance were reportedly gay, lesbian or bisexual,” writes Thomas H. Wirth in Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance, noting that the overlap is far from a coincidence.

“The movement that enabled outsider Negro artists to emerge as a group for the first time was also the movement that enabled gay and lesbian artists to express their sexuality with a greater degree of freedom than at any other period in American history.”

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In the 20s and 30s, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Lucille Bogan were collectively known as “the big three of the blues,” and were all open to an extent about their queer proclivities. But a tier below them, in the underground world of gay-friendly blues clubs, was an even more brazen performer: Gladys Bentley, who dressed in a tuxedo with short-cropped hair as she sang racy songs to full houses. “From the time I can remember anything,” she told Ebony later in life, “even as I was toddling, I never wanted a man to touch me… Soon I began to feel more comfortable in boys clothes than in dresses.”

The Harlem blues scene not only accepted Bentley but made her an underground celebrity. She packed nightclubs and speakeasies like Harry Hansberry’s Clam House, which was gay-friendly and gay-themed, if not entirely catered to gay patrons. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, a “pansy craze” had gripped the city, drawing crowds of straight and/or white onlookers who were titillated by the black queer performers on stage. At the Clam House, Bentley was often backed by a chorus line of drag queens. She later moved to California where she frequently headlined at Mona’s 440 Club (“Where girls will be boys”) in San Francisco, often considered the first explicit lesbian bar in America.

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Most lesbian and bisexual blues singers were less open than Bentley, though. Alberta Hunter, who found success on a larger stage, lived quietly with her lover Lottie Tyler and disapproved of public displays of queer affection. Ethel Waters went to great lengths to conceal her relationship with Ethel Williams, either despite or because the pair performed together as “The Two Ethels.” By all accounts, there was a distinction between women who took female lovers and out butch lesbians (“B.D. women”), who were relegated to performing at niche clubs like Bentley. In a biography of Josephine Baker, who had multiple lesbian affairs, including with Frida Kahlo, her friend Maude Russell said:

“We had girl friendships, the famous lady lovers, but lesbians weren’t well accepted in show business, they were called bull dykers. I guess we were bisexual, is what you’d call it today.”

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Ethel Waters, 1930. (Library of Congress)

But behind closed doors, all bets were off. One dancer, Mabel Hampton, remembered walking into a party hosted by black heiress and arts patron A’Leilia Walker. As summarized in James F. Wilson’s Bulldaggers, Pansies and Chocolate Babies, she saw:

“Some fourteen or fifteen men and women… none of whom were wearing any clothes, lounging about on oversized pillows. Soft music filled the room, gentle light emanated from the floor, and the men and women lay in each other’s arms. When she looked more closely, though, Hampton noticed something even odder: the men were lying on top of other men, and women were lying on top of other women.”

It was the kind of party that Ma Rainey had been arrested for attending in 1925. Mabel Hampton was uncomfortable at first, but soon relaxed and even joined in. “Seen the rest of them do it,” she wrote, “what the hell, I’ll do it too. It was fascinating.” Hampton became a member of the women-only party scene, and hosted many of them herself at her apartment on 122nd street. At these parties, she wrote:

“The bulldykers would come and bring their women with them. And you wasn’t supposed to jive with them, you know. They danced up a breeze. They did the Charleston, they did a little bit of everything. They were all colored women. Sometimes we ran into someone who had a white woman with them. But me, I’d venture out with any of them. I just had a ball.”


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Left: Ethel Waters in “Mamba’s Daughters” with actress Fredi Washington, 1940 (Temple University Libraries) Centers: Bessie Smith, 1936. (Carl Van Vechten/Library of Congress) Right: Alberta Hunter: (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty)

An attitude of sexual permissiveness pervaded every aspect of the Harlem Renaissance, but the greatest concentration of queer expression was arguably in blues music. Blues was a popular art form, one that had a lot in common with vaudeville. Blues lyrics could be ribald and crass; they were, in many cases, designed to shock and entertain, and it wasn’t ever certain whether the singer was expressing his or her own experience or playing a part. Additionally, blues songs were endlessly recycled, lyrics lifted from other artists — someone else’s view of the world. That slippery subjectivity made for an extra degree of plausible deniability, which meant more queer content could slip under the radar and be left unexplained.

Bessie Smith found freedom in the form. She lived in fear that her physically abusive husband would find out about her affairs with women, but the blues gave her an opportunity to sing out loud what she was struggling to keep under wraps. For example, she usually sang a version of “Empty Bed Blues” that referenced a male love object, but on at least one occasion sang:

"I want a deep-sea diving woman that got a stroke that can’t go wrong. Yeah, touch that bottom, gal, hold it all night long.”

Bessie wrote that song, mind you, so the lyrical swap was all hers. Even Alberta Hunter, who was so careful to keep her distance from lesbianism in the tabloids, couldn’t resist the temptation to throw in at the end of one song:

“If you didn’t want me, tell me to my face, ’cause five or six women long to take your place.”

If anyone asked, well, she was just borrowing a lyric from some old blues song you’d never heard of.


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