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As social critic Derrick Bell writes in his book Gospel Choirs, one of black music's earliest functions was to get people through hard times. During slavery, spirituals would sometimes be encoded with secret messages, directions on how to get North to freedom. Franklin's cryptic hurt serves a similar function; it draws us in, it commands empathy, and it ultimately points us north. Listen to her voice on the prayerful Wholy Holy, spiraling away, taking us away. North out of heartbreak, north out of oppression, north toward where we want to go.
Can I get a witness?
TIME music critic Christopher John Farley is the author of the novel My Favorite War
Back to the Roots
By Angela Davis, author of Blues Legacies and Black Feminism
Long before Aretha demanded respect, black female vocalists discovered liberation in the blues.
Blues music emerged in the aftermath of U.S. slavery. With a lineage consisting largely of spirituals and work songs, the blues was the first musical genre to reflect black people's experience of 'freedom' in the U.S.
While emancipation did not bring them socioeconomic freedom, formerly enslaved blacks enjoyed a new latitude in travel and sexuality. For the first time they could move from place to place as they chose, and for the first time they could make their own decisions about sexual relationships. Consequently, themes of travel and sexuality permeate the blues. Sexuality, in particular, came to symbolize freedom, and a preoccupation with personal relationships bespoke aspirations for a larger freedom.
In addition to functioning as an affirmation of newfound physical liberty, travel served a practical purpose: many blacks‹primarily men, who were less constrained by family ties than women‹took to the road in search of work. These journeys, made by foot and by freight train, gave rise to the figure of the male blues singer‹a lone black man with a guitar, traveling the countryside singing about his life. This rural genre became known as country blues. Although black men were first to sing the blues, the first blues recording was made by a black woman. Within one month of its release, Mamie Smith's 1920 version of Perry Bradford¹s Crazy Blues sold 75,000 copies at one dollar apiece. The buyers were almost exclusively black people, for whom a dollar was a small fortune in 1920, and so this represented phenomenal sales. Recording companies like Columbia and Paramount recognized and quickly moved to exploit this untapped black music market, creating segregated 'race records' divisions. It was several years before these companies saw that male blues too could generate profits.
Gertrude (³Ma²) Rainey, known as the mother of the blues, stands at the juncture of rural country blues and a more urban form that reached its peak with the popularity of her protégé, Bessie Smith. As the first broadly known traveling blues woman, Rainey represented for many women in her audiences a tangible incarnation of freedom. A pioneer on the black entertainment circuit, she shaped women¹s blues for many generations. As blues singer Koko Taylor said, women like ³Ma² Rainey were the foundation of the blues.
Bessie Smith, who earned the title Empress of the Blues in part through the sale of some 750,000 copies of her first record, took women¹s blues to a new level. Among other things, songs like her Poor Man¹s Blues (³Mister rich man, rich man, open up your heart and mind/ Give the poor man a chance, help stop these hard, hard times) represented pioneering social protests in black American popular music. Smith became the first black woman 'superstar,' traveling with her own tent show and attracting huge audiences. Smith's recorded performances reflect hints of the multi-layered meanings, beyond the literal content of the lyrics, with which blues women often endowed the songs they sang. In fact, looking at early women's blues from a modern perspective, we can detect emerging feminist themes.
Perhaps no one employed this strategy with more profound results than the incomparable Billie Holiday, who paved the way for an entire generation of black women vocal stylists, including Carmen McRae, Ella Fitzgerald and R.-and-B. singers like Aretha Franklin. Although Holiday, who counted Bessie Smith among her most important musical influences, was not a blues singer per se, her music was deeply rooted in the blues tradition. As a jazz musician working primarily with the idiom of white popular song, Holiday used the blues tradition to inject suggestions of perspectives more complicated than those the lyrics themselves contained.
That Holiday made Strange Fruit, her powerful and disturbing antilynching protest, the centerpiece of her repertoire suggests that her artistic choices were conscious and principled, and‹like so much African- American art‹perhaps far more nuanced than popular critical reviews have yet revealed.