Though often part of oral traditions rather than written ones, African American women have also enriched popular music since the 19th century. There are numerous references, for example, to a singer and songwriter called simply “Mama Lou” or “Mammy Lou.” Mama Lou, who has been described as a “gnarled, black African,” provided musical entertainment in a plush Mississippi River brothel called Babe Connor’s in St. Louis in the l880’s and ’90’s. (More information on her is included in David Ewen’s The Life and Death of Tin Pan Alley).
Mama Lou is a good example of how individuals shaped and re-defined folk music in its transition to popular music, putting a strong stamp on tunes. Her interpretations of three hits of the period – “Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ray,” “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” and “Frankie and Johnny” – were, according to legend, so compelling that she re-made the songs as we still know and love them today. If it is difficult to sort out the extent of the creative contribution for songs from the 20th century, it is near impossible to do so for those from the l9th century. One thing is certain: Mama Lou, an ex-slave, never made any money specifically from “her” songs. As was also the case for Lucile Des Moulins, whose “219 Blues” set down in New Orleans a bit later, became a standard among musicians.
Many of the Blues Queens of the l920’s, usually coupled with jazz players, were prolific songwriters themselves. The Knoxville born Ida Cox (1896-1967), whose career bridged vaudeville and the blues (a market then aimed largely at working-class African Americans), wrote the wonderful “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues,” as well as “Death Letter Blues,” “Four Day Creep,” “Western Union Blues,” and later “One Hour Mama.” She recorded for Paramount in Chicago, working there with Lovie Austin and trumpeter Tommy Ladnier. In 1939, she appeared at Café Society and performed in John Hammond‘s legendary Spirituals To Swing concert at Carnegie Hall. Retired for much of the 1950s, a final recording session in 1961 paired her with Coleman Hawkins.
Sippie Wallace (1898-1986), dubbed the “Texas Nightingale,” began performing in tent shows with her brother the pianist Hersal Thomas, with whom she collaborated on many of her songs. Moving to Chicago in 1923, she began recording for Okeh with the likes of King Oliver and Louis Armstrong: “Shorty George” and “Up the Country Blues” quickly became hits. Following the death of Thomas and her husband Matt in 1936, she joined the Leland Baptist Church in Detroit, where she remained the organist for 40 years. In 1966, she was lured out of retirement to the newly emerging blues festival circuit. Her recognition today is due in part to the attention of contemporary blues singer and songwriter Bonnie Raitt, with whom she performed and recorded in her later years.
Victoria Spivey (1906-76), the woman who convinced Wallace to come out of retirement, began her career singing and playing piano in the same Houston and Dallas clubs. She wrote “Black Snake Blues,” “Brooklyn Blues,” “TB Blues,” “Dead Hope Blues,” (recorded for a variety of labels) and many others as trenchant commentary on social issues. Alberta Hunter (1895-1984), known in Chicago as the South Side’s Sweetheart, made her first recordings in 1923. She had come up with “Down Hearted Blues,” picking it out one note at a time on the piano. Lovie Austin heard her perform it, helped her to write it down, and encouraged her to copyright it. The recording by Bessie Smith sold over a million copies. Hunter, having spent decades in obscurity as a nurse, made a grand comeback in her 80s.
Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (1886-1939) and Bessie Smith (1894-1937), “The Empress of the Blues,” are perhaps the best known and most significant of the Blues Queens; Smith has been the subject of a thorough biography by Chris Albertson titled simply Bessie. Without recounting their lives here, the two collaborated on number of songs including “Don’t Fish in My Sea,” “Morning Hour Blues,” “Soon This Morning,” and “Weeping Woman Blues.”
Both wrote substantial portions of their own repertoire, each woman having recorded about 35 of her own blues. Rainey’s compositions include: “Army Camp Harmony Blues,” “Black Dust Blues,” “Blues, Oh Blues,” “Bo-Weevil Blues,” “Broken Hearted Blues,” “Cell Bound Blues,” “Daddy Goodbye Blues,” “Lawd, Send Me a Man Blues,” “Louisiana Hoodoo Blues,” “See See Rider Blues.” Smith’s comprise a lengthy list as well, including “Baby Doll,” “Backwater Blues,” “Blue, Blue,” “Dixie Flyer Blues,” “Foolish Man Blues,” “He’s Gone Blues,” “Hot Spring Blues,” “In the House Blues,” “Jail House Blues,” “Lost Your Head Blues,” and “My Man Blues.” The complete texts of both of their recordings have been transcribed by Angela Davis in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday.
Through Raney and Smith, a small but significant thread of women singers have continued to write their own material. Ella Fitzgerald penned some of novelty songs, including her famed “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” (1938) and “Oh, But I Do” (1945) also recorded by Nat King Cole. She contributed lyrics to Ellington‘s “Mellotone.” Billie Holiday wrote the blues “Fine and Mellow” as well as “Don’t Explain,” and co-wrote “God Bless the Child” (with Arthur Herzog) and “Left Alone” (with Mal Waldron). These songs endure as quintessential representations of her life and art. It is from this tradition that Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln, Cassandra Wilson and others have emerged in the present day. [Ed. Note: Billie Holiday never lived to perform "Left Alone," but Abbey Lincoln recorded it.]
From JAZZHERS: A partial hyperHERstory of women popular songwriters and jazz composers
By Linda Dahl
© 2002 NewMusicBox