June is Black Music Month – a time to recognize and highlight the numerous and enduring contributions of Black artists, songwriters, and musicians. To help us celebrate Black Music Month, and learn more about the history of Black music, we asked Dr. Dwandalyn R. Reece, Associate Director for Humanities at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, to share her expertise. Dr. Reece provides us with a narrative and a playlist that takes us on a journey through the Blues Queens and their legacies. Thanks to streaming services’ unlimited shelf space, these historic tracks are available for discovery and re-discovery anytime, anywhere. We encourage you to visit your favorite music streaming service to listen to Dr. Reece’s playlist and immerse yourself in the Blues Queens’ works, while considering how artists and songwriters today have been influenced and inspired by those that came before them.
We hope you enjoy this opportunity to discover the enduring music legacy of these Black artists.
Celebrating Black Music Month 2023: Queens of the Blues by Dr. Dwandalyn R. Reece
June 15, 2023
Queens of the Blues
The blues have played an integral role in the evolution of American music. They originated with the first generation of African Americans who navigated their lives as free men and women, under new structures of systemic racism and social oppression. The blues spread through the rural south as an oral folk tradition just like the spirituals and provided a vehicle for exploring complex issues such as relationships, domestic violence, alcoholism, natural disasters, labor and social protest.
The first African American to record the vocal blues was vaudeville and cabaret singer Mamie Smith when she recorded Percy Bradford’s “Crazy Blues’ for the Okeh label in 1920. The record was an instant hit and sold over 75,000 copies within the first month of its release. With the overwhelming success of “Crazy Blues,” Black female vocalists dominated the race record market. Vocalists like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Clara Smith, Victoria Spivey, Ida Cox, Ethel Waters, and Sippie Wallace along with many others, enjoyed tremendous popularity throughout the 1920s recording for such labels as Columbia, Paramount, Vocalion, and Black Swan, as they traveled the country performing on the Theatre Owners Booking Association (TOBA) Black vaudeville circuit.
These Blues Queens sang openly about their own experiences and desires. Very little of their lives was off limits. They sang of love, sexual fluidity, infidelity, alienation, loneliness, violence, mobility and dislocation. While their views of the world were shaped by the patriarchal and white supremacist ideologies that worked to confine their lives as Black women, their music addressed not only pain and sorrow but also the element of survival. Each of these Blues Queens brought their own unique voice and style to their performances to get at the emotional heart of their musical expressions. In listening to them you felt like the experiences they were singing about were your own. Their unique voices bespoke their independence and sense of agency and served as a prototype for a Black feminist consciousness in popular music.
The Blues Queens of the 1920s not only popularized the blues but announced the arrival of the modern Black woman. Over the last one-hundred years, Black female artists have emulated the Blues Queens in virtually every popular music genre. We see echoes of all the Blues Queens in the songs of Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Tina Turner, Queen Latifah, and Beyonce. Like their foremothers before them, through their music and public personas, these women challenged the conventional notions of femininity of their time and displayed a fierce independence that carved out a modern sensibility where their needs, desires, and opinions were shared with no apology. The legacy of their creative gifts and their musical expression have elevated the voices and sensibilities of Black women to audiences worldwide.
The Blues Queens
- Mamie Smith, “Crazy Blues”
- Bessie Smith, “Down Hearted Blues”
- Ethel Waters, “Oh Daddy” or “My Handy Man”
- Ma Rainey, “Prove it On Me Blues”
- Victoria Spivey, “Murder in the First Degree”
- Clara Smith, “Whip It To a Jelly”
- Bessie Smith, “Backwater Blues”
- Ida Cox, “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues”
- Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit”
- Aretha Franklin, “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”
- Nina Simone, “My Man’s Gone Now”
- Tina Turner, “What’s Love Got to Do with It”
- Labelle, “Lady Marmalade”
- Valerie June, “Workin’ Women Blues”
- Beyonce, “Hold Up”