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Blues Music  
page: 1  2  

Another singer, Lucille Bogan, also known as Bessie Jackson, was known for her extremely risqué material. As Jackson, Bogan recorded "B.D. [Bull-Dykers] Woman's Blues" in 1935. Bulldaggers, Bogan insists, "can lay their jive just like a natural man / B.D. women sure is rough; they drink up many a whiskey and sure can strut their stuff."

Bisexual and Lesbian Performers

Such explicit material was commonplace in early blues songs, and many early blues performers, including Rainey, Smith, Hunter, and Gladys Bentley were openly bisexual or lesbian.

In 1925 Rainey was arrested for indecency after being caught naked with a group of women at a private party; Bessie Smith bailed her out, and they would often joke about the awkward yet humorous incident afterward (the still-undressed Rainey fell down the stairs trying to get away).

Smith, though also married, likewise made no secret of her numerous affairs with women. Bentley, described by Langston Hughes as "a large, dark masculine lady," was acclaimed for her bulldagger image and gender performance.

Other renowned blues singers of the era included Sippie Wallace and Ethel Waters. Called "Sweet Mama Stringbean," Waters went on to a successful Oscar-nominated film career.

Later Blues Singers

Vaudeville and blues music began to fall out of fashion around the time of the Great Depression, giving way to the rising popularity of motion pictures and the more upbeat jazz music. Male performers such as Muddy Waters or B.B. King who are today more readily associated with the genre did not emerge in popularity until the 1950s.

In the 1950s female singers such as Ruth Brown, Koko Taylor, Dinah Washington, and Big Mama Thornton revived the tradition of the remarkably gutsy, pioneering female performers. Thornton, a powerful performer who frequently dressed in masculine clothing, released "Hound Dog" in 1953, three years before Elvis Presley's rendition.

Classic women's blues music experienced a resurgence of popularity in the 1960s and 1970s with the re-release of Bessie Smith's catalog, as well as the spectacular reemergence of Hunter in 1977 following a 20-year career hiatus.

Carla Williams

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literature >> Overview:  American Literature: Lesbian, 1900-1969

American lesbian literature prior to Stonewall exploited the "outlaw" status of the lesbian as it moved from encrypted strategies of expression to overt political celebrations of woman-for-woman passion.

arts >> Overview:  Music: Popular

Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons have had tremendous influence on popular music, though some musical genres have been more receptive to a homosexual presence than others.

arts >> Bentley, Gladys

African-American Blues singer Gladys Bentley openly flaunted her lesbianism in the 1920s and 1930s, but recanted in the 1950s in an attempt to salvage her career.

arts >> Carter, Nell

A dynamic performer on stage, television, film, and record, Nell Carter built a successful and versatile show business career; only after her death was her longtime relationship with a woman revealed to the public.

literature >> Hughes, Langston

Langston Hughes, whose literary legacy is enormous and varied, was closeted, but homosexuality was an important influence on his literary imagination, and many of his poems may be read as gay texts.

arts >> Hunter, Alberta

Blues singer, lyricist, and actress Alberta Hunter, one of the top recording artists in the 1920s and 1930s, experienced a dramatic comeback in her old age.

arts >> Ndegeocello, Meshell

Singer, songwriter, and bassist Meshell Ndegeocello is a notably eclectic artist whose music confronts social and sexual issues, including racial identity, same-sex attraction, and homophobia.

arts >> Rainey, Gertrude ("Ma")

"Mother of the Blues" Gertrude "Ma" Rainey made no secret of her relationships with women.

arts >> Smith, Bessie

Gifted with a powerful voice and sophisticated musical artistry, singer Bessie Smith conducted her life by her own set of rules and had affairs with both men and women.

arts >> Thornton, Willie Mae "Big Mama"

A powerhouse performer noted for her no-nonsense stage presence and a penchant for cross-dressing, blues singer and songwriter Big Mama Thornton not only established a signature style of her own, but also inspired mainstream rockers.

arts >> Waters, Ethel

Perhaps best remembered for her award-winning performances as an actress, Ethel Waters was also a renowned Blues singer, known to have sexual relationships with other women.


Broer, Lawrence R., and John D. Walther, eds. Dancing Fools and Weary Blues: The Great Escape of the Twenties. Bowling Green, Oh.: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1990.

Davis, Angela Y. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude 'Ma' Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. New York: Pantheon Books, 1998.

Harrison, Daphne Duval. Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s. New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988.

Oliver, Paul. Aspects of the Blues Tradition. New York: Oak Publications, 1968.

_____. Blues Fell This Morning: Meaning in the Blues. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Sullivan, Tom. "Remember Ma Rainey,"


    Citation Information
    Author: Williams, Carla  
    Entry Title: Blues Music  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated August 2, 2004  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  


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