Slavery is a painful period in Black history, but despite that pain it was also the catalyst for cultural movements in the realm of music and dance that ended up dominating the world. The blues, for example, is a musical genre born of American slavery. Enslaved people would sing spirituals or chants what were known as work songs while in the fields. Those songs passed the time, helped them secretly communicate, and were also outlets for survival. For example, songs about unrequited love were often coded. The “lover” was usually a metaphor for the master and the comeuppance in the songs was about the karma that would come from the evil deeds done to humanity. It was word play at its finest—the original diss tracks.
The blues developed in that tradition, which is why it’s melancholy, but it took on a life of its own. It went from being coded language to a genre of music known for raunchy lyrics and graphic or taboo depictions of sex and drugs. It also spawned hip-hop and rock and roll. When most people think of the early post-slavery days of the blues, they probably think about itinerant men traveling the chitlin’ circuit with a harmonica or guitar performing for money. Or, they think about men like Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker, who have become the faces of the blues.
However, as storied as the blues is, there’s an element that is often overlooked: the queer men and women who’ve had a hand in the genre’s development.
According to Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff’s The Original Blues: The Emergence of Blues in African American Vaudeville, one of the first documented accounts of a blues performance on stage was in the early 1900s by John W.F. “Johnnie” Woods, a female impersonator who sang and had a ventriloquist act with a dummy named Little Henry. There’s no clear indication according to documentation that Woods was queer, but gender bending was certainly taboo.
In 1934, James “Kokomo” Arnold recorded “Sissy Man Blues,” a direct reference to bisexuality where he sings, “Lord, if you can’t send me no woman, please send me some sissy man.” This song was later recorded by other blues musicians of the era. There were also female performers, such as Ma Rainey and Gladys Bentley, who gained popularity in the 1920s with masculine performances; they were widely referred to as bulldaggers (which is considered derogatory today). Their music was often sexually explicit and included references to homosexuality.
They lived as freely as they could but not without societal judgement or personal conflict. In George Hannah’s 1920’s recording, “The Boy in the Boat,” he sings, “When you see two women walking hand and hand, just look ‘em over and try to understand.” He continues singing about parties where they “have their lives down low, only parties where women can go.”
And in case you’re wondering, “boy in the boat” is slang for clitoris—as in, “I was playing with the boy in the boat today.”
Gladys Bentley, 1907-1960
Gladys Alberta Bentley, also known as Barbara “Bobbie” Minton, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1907 to an American father and Trinidadian mother. Bentley, who was the oldest of four children, didn’t have a good relationship with her mother whom she claimed rejected and neglected her because she wasn’t a boy. Her grandmother stepped in and raised her. Bentley was aware that she was interested in women at a young age, having had a crush on one of her female teachers in elementary school, and defied gender normative behaviors and femininity. She ran away from home at 16 and began her life in Harlem as the Harlem Renaissance started to gain momentum.
She made a name for herself by performing at gay speakeasies dressed in men’s attire and under the name, “Barbara Bobbie Minton.” She was skilled as a pianist, singer and entertainer and was known for her funny and risqué content. She openly sang about her sexual relationships with women—mostly through innuendo, but her meaning wasn’t lost on anyone. In 1933 she attempted to take her routine to Broadway but received so many complaints about her raunchy material that police began to look up her performances and lock the doors before anyone could come to the theater. She went back to the club circuit and in the late 30s relocated to California where she continued to perform.
Later in her life, she studied to be a minister and claimed that she was cured of homosexuality by taking female hormones. She wrote about this in an Ebony Magazine essay, “I Am a Woman Again.” Bobbie died of pneumonia at age 52, but she was a trailblazer in other ways. In 1931 she married a white woman in a public ceremony. She also married men, including journalist J.T. Gipson and Charles Roberts, a cook who later denied ever being married to her. Her love life was complicated.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe, 1915-1973
Sister Rosetta Tharpe (born Rosetta Nubin) is the godmother of rock and roll and one of the greatest guitarists of all time. Tharpe was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018, but it took a ridiculously long time for people to recognize her influence on the genre. Last year, Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss had an NYFW presentation in her honor, which reignited interest in the legend. Better late than never.
Tharpe grew up in the South and attended a Pentecostal church where her mother was a preacher. It was there she honed her musical skills. She was seen as a musical prodigy even then, and by the time she was six, she was performing in a traveling evangelical troupe. She married a preacher named Thomas Tharpe but left him a few years later.
She kept the name Tharpe and continued performing and recording music. Gospel was a constant for her, but she also had secular songs. People were amazed by her vocals and stunned that a woman could play the guitar the way she did. Back then, the guitar was seen as primarily a man’s instrument.
The year 1944 was a big one in Tharpe’s career. She released “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” which became the first gospel song to chart on Billboard’s Race Records Top 10 (it would just be R&B nowadays). Some people consider it to be the first rock song, but it was also spiritual—not at all different from how Tharpe had previously created music. She regularly fused gospel with R&B, even down to the guitar riffs. That was the sound she created, but it also became the signature sound for other iconic musicians, such as Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Eric Clapton, Chuck Berry, and more.
Tharpe’s credibility took a hit when it started to circulate that she and her musical partner, Marie Knight, with whom she toured performing gospel, had a romantic relationship. They denied having an affair, but music biographer Gayle Wald writes in Shout, Sister, Shout!, her 2007 biography of Tharpe, that it was an open secret. Their fans also didn’t like that the duo had recorded some blues in addition to gospel. Tharpe had always toed the line between jazz, gospel and blues, and that was unacceptable for a lot of people.
She didn’t receive the recognition she deserved in her lifetime, but again, she paved the way for some of the biggest forces in American music history. Aretha Franklin, much like Tharpe, started out in the church but genre-bended, which was taboo. Jimi Hendrix said that he was inspired by Tharpe’s guitar distortion and wanted to play like her. Even Bob Dylan referred to her as a “powerful force of nature, a guitar playing, singing evangelist.”
No lies detected.
Toward the end of her life, Tharpe moved to England where she continued to perform, but health issues related to diabetes slowed her down significantly. She died of a stroke in 1973 at age 58.
Frankie “Half-pint” Jaxon, 1895-1944
Jaxon earned his nickname “Half-pint” because he was 5’2”. He was a vaudeville performer known for his female impersonation. He often crossed paths with Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters—and even helped them with creative direction for their sets. In 1929 he appeared with Duke Ellington in a short film titled Black and Tan. And Cab Calloway’s 1931 song “Minnie the Moocher” is based on Jaxon’s “Willie the Weeper.”
Ma Rainey, 1886-1939
Ma Rainey is also known as “Mother of the Blues.” She’s credited with being the first popular stage entertainer to incorporate blues into her on-stage repertoire. She was gritty, raw and unrefined, and captured the essence of black rural life in the South. Rainey’s music influenced other musicians, but she also inspired writers like Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown. Brown described her as a “person of the folk”, a nod to how Rainey used traditional blues in her performances. He also wrote a tribute poem titled “Ma Rainey,” which appeared in his 1932 collection of poetry, Southern Road.
Rainey’s impact extended well beyond her contemporaries. Writer Alice Walker was inspired by Rainey’s music as a cultural model for the black womanhood she portrayed in her 1982 novel The Color Purple—particularly for the character Shug Avery. Playwright August Wilson penned Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom—also in 1982—which centers on issues of race, art, religion and the exploitation of black recording artists. The play’s title refers to a song of the same name by Ma Rainey. It first ran at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut. Then it moved to Broadway in 1984, won a Tony Award in 1985 and made its rounds throughout the 80s at various theaters around the world. The 2003 revival featured Whoopi Goldberg playing Ma Rainey.
Bessie Smith, 1894-1937
Bessie Smith, nicknamed “Empress of the Blues,” was the most popular blues singer out in the 20s and 30s. She became one of the highest paid entertainers during her heyday and influenced blues singers and jazz vocalists who came after her. Smith’s musical content was all about sexual freedom and women’s liberation from gender constructs. She did not feed into respectability politics and was often seen as too rough and unladylike. She had critics, but there were people who loved her too.
She made over 160 recordings for Columbia Records and worked with some of the best musicians at that time, like Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, and more. She toured with Ma Rainey, who was also her mentor. Smith’s career was cut short by the Great Depression, which almost put the recording business out of business. However, she never stopped performing and touring. She died at age 43 in a car accident. Her grave was left unmark until Janis Joplin bought her a tombstone in 1970. Queen Latifah portrayed Smith in the 2015 HBO biopic, Bessie.
Billy Strayhorn, 1915-1967
William Thomas Strayhorn was a jazz composer, arranger, pianist and lyricist. Technically he’s not a blues musician, but blues helped birth jazz so we’ll count Strayhorn on this list. He had over 30 years of collaboration with Duke Ellington and created several of the most iconic songs in jazz history. His arrangements had a profound impact on Ellington’s band, some of their most popular work together being “Take the A Train”, “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing,” and others.
Another component to Strayhorn’s life was his activism. He was openly gay and frequently participated in Civil Rights causes. He was friends with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and arranged and conducted “King Fit the Battle of Alabama” for the Ellington Orchestra in 1963. The song, which was a tribute to MLK, was one of Ellington’s most overtly political tunes. It fused vocal elements of traditional gospel and Negro spirituals with jazz music theory concepts.