Blue, Lavender and Black: Ma Rainey’s Queer Legacy

by: Patrick Gill

Note: This article was originally posted at Go Over the Rainbow, you can view it here.

Sexuality has been a pillar of Blues music since its inception, which is one of the reasons it is such a powerful medium. The frank exploration of the personal–on a record or stage–can give the members of an audience a sense that their struggles are shared or can be made beautiful; it is the claiming, creation, and explication of one’s narrative, born of a time when its practitioners were denied this in nearly every other space. The Blues can be sturdy in its structure and decadent in its words, but it is sacred at its core and has a reverence for a person’s lived experience. The Blues are an art form in which women can express, celebrate, and demand recognition of their sexual selves and cultivate strength. They do so regardless of their sexuality, as they have since the Blues began.

In 1928, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (1886-1939) recorded her song “Prove It on Me Blues”, an account of not being able to find her female lover after a fight. She candidly croons about going out with women ” ’cause [she] don’t like no men.” She continues, “it’s true [she] wear[s] a collar and a tie” and “talk[s] to the gals just like any old man”, yet “ain’t nobody caught [her]/They sure got to prove it”. The content and playfulness of her lyrics are something most wouldn’t expect out of the era. She sings that she cannot be called a lesbian, because no one has seen her engaging with women, but she is openly discussing a predilection for ladies. Rainey defines her sexuality on her own terms rather than by the judgment of others.

When we think of homosexuality in the 1920’s we believe it to be clandestine, painful, and never discussed. We often can’t imagine it being recorded and distributed. Yet, here is a strident, brassy, and enlightening song. It is one more addition to our history, plunging our defiant roots deeper. The gender transgression and flouting of heteronormativity present in “Prove It on Me” was not Rainey’s only foray into LGBTQ subject matter.

She also wrote “Sissy Blues”, in which her man has left her for a “sissy”, an effeminate gay man. The song is without condescension or moral outrage, simply expressing heartbreak at the loss of a lover in the language of the times.

Rainey’s personal sexuality was not as cut and dried as lesbian, straight, or even bisexual. There are varying accounts of varying credibility about Rainey’s affairs with women. She was married, but that is not the end of the discussion of a person’s sexuality. I like to think of Rainey as proto-queer, from a time before that terminology had been reclaimed.

Rainey was the first, but not the only woman who had songs about masculine women, or women loving women, or effeminate men. A nonjudgmental attitude and tone regarding homosexuality is prominent in classic Blues. Lucille Bogan aka Bessie Jackson wrote and performed “B.D. Woman’s Blues.” A B.D. Woman–short for Bull Dagger or Bull Dyke—is described as being as tough, if not tougher, than any man.  George Hanna  in his 1930 recoding  “Boy in the Boat” encapsulated the Blues culture’s attitude towards same sex/gender love–  “When you see two women walking hand in hand, just shake your head and try to understand.” Though at first there is a sign of distaste, the statement ends with encouragement to understand.  In an art form created as a method of combating oppression, this tone asks why oppress further.  Why not let people live and enjoy life?

Rainey was also not the only female blues musician of her time to love other women. The Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith, legendary Chicagoan Alberta Hunter, and Ethel Waters have all been linked romantically to other women at some time. Sexuality seems to have been more fluid for the time than we realize. Gender was famously deconstructed and coyly played with in the 1930’s by Gladys Bentley (1907-1960) in her shows at Harlem clubs. She drew crowds with her top hat and tails and stories about affairs with women; she confronted racial fears by claiming she had married a white woman in New Jersey.

The canon created by early Blues musicians should be a source of pride and intrigue for contemporary LGBTQ persons. Our community often feels denied a past, and no matter how much unpacking some of these songs need, I personally find comfort in the fact that we have songs depicting a similar life as ours today. Further, these songs help contemporary persons recognize that people of color have had an integral part in the American LGBTQ movement and community from before most think such things existed. The recordings of Ma Rainey and those who followed are markers of progress for multiple American communities. Though we only have stories and song recordings, I am still happy they can be counted among our historical figures. They are vibrant and powerful treasures, well deserving of a listen and a place in our queer pantheon.

Patrick Gill is the Co-Creator of In Our Words, as well as the Co-Founder and Host of the queer reading series All The Writers I Know.  He is a poet, essayist, short story writer and occasional performer.   Patrick writes the column “B*tch, I’m Miley Cyrus” for HEAVEMedia, is an alumnus of DePaul, has developed LGBTQ-centered anti-bullying curricula for CPS schools and is currently working on LGBTQ friendly children’s books.  Patrick is doing so in order to be cute and endearing once again.  He is a semi-professional word-hustler and a burrito hunter.  His mother thinks everything he is doing is a fun thing to do.

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