The song "Wild Women Don't Have the Blues" is played; it explains why wild women have an advantage in the battle of the sexes. Blues artists gave America its most enduring original music.
The Blues (02:44)
Blues singers sing about life's difficulties. We watch a 1987 performance. The women such as Ma Rainey who brought the blues up from slavery to mainstream culture are discussed.
Nineteenth Century Blues (01:09)
Ma Rainey grew up in rural 1890s Georgia, hearing blues songs improvised to match the rhythms of hard labor. Men who sang blues provided entertainment at events in the countryside.
Ma Rainey's New Direction (01:28)
Ma Rainey took the blues to the stage, incorporating traditions of theatrical entertainment.
Vaudeville Blues (01:46)
Ma Rainey mixed blues with soul shows, creating the art of vaudeville blues, giving them a new theme: troubles with men and love. Her title Ma connoted respect, indicating she was the boss.
Early Black Entertainment (02:31)
Barred from white theaters, travelling black theatrical entertainers used tents. Ma Rainey's successors started as young girls singing and dancing on the tent circuit.
Vaudeville Theater (02:37)
Performers moved from the tent scene to vaudeville theaters, which provided a new professionalism. They toured through the Theater Owners' Booking Association.
Bessy Smith (01:27)
Vaudeville performers took their talents north; Bessy Smith went was fired from a show because her skin was too dark and succeeded in New York.
Bessy Smith's Dress and Charisma (02:16)
For audiences accustomed to seeing black performers in Mamie costumes, Bessy Smith daringly presented full empress regalia. Beneath the glamor, audiences saw her as one of them.
Tapping Into Mood (02:30)
Blues singers know how to bring audiences around to their mood. A contemporary singer explains how she writes about ordinary people's problems and feelings; we watch her performance.
Moral Condemnation of Blues (03:05)
Religious leaders condemned blues singers' sexual and other themes as immoral, and parents often discouraged their kids' interest in playing. Religious music held a dominant cultural position.
Hymns and Blues (03:35)
A pianist plays a Christian hymn, jazzed up. Blues musicians drew on rhythms they grew up singing in Baptist churches. Some considered their music the devil's work.
Mamie Smith's Crazy Blues (02:47)
The recording industry ignored blues until Mamie Smith's Crazy Blues in 1920, which popularized blues nationally and contributed to phonograph sales.
Recording Industry Scouting and Marketing (01:22)
Jumping on the bandwagon, record companies scoured the vaudeville circuit for women who could sing blues, marketing exclusively to blacks but reaching unprecedented mass audiences.
Black Migration (02:35)
Blacks began leaving the South in WWI as factory work became available, allowing black music to escape Southern confines and change America's musical ear.
Northern Black Musical Culture (02:07)
Black musicians up from the South found greater freedom and opportunity playing in clubs in Chicago and other northern cities. 1920s culture was loose, and musical innovations spread rapidly.
Harlem Scene (01:43)
Cotton Club opened in entertainment center Harlem to bring black entertainment to well-off white audiences; black customers were not allowed in.
Double Entendres (03:18)
Blues singers provided songs to match the liberated attitude of their customers, with risque themes. We watch to a 1982 Alberta Hunter perform Handy Man, filled with double entendres.
Alberta Hunter (02:37)
An anecdote about a gang fight illustrates Alberta Hunter's ruthless business acumen, which along with her talent as a performer made her troop a success.
Racial Harassment (01:52)
Black travelling performers recall having things thrown at them. The blues grew out of real life experiences, but singers were aggressive in pursuit of success.
Bessie Smith (02:36)
Bessie Smith was tough and aggressive, but kind to those she liked. Her antics at a fancy party are recalled.
By the mid-1920s, the blues women were national stars, peaking around 1923-25. Blues and Jazz moved from black niche culture to a huge influence on mainstream American music.
Talking Picture (01:02)
Blues singers appeared in the new medium of talking pictures. We see Bessie Smith's portrayal of a woman done wrong by a man.
Decline of Blues (02:05)
Sorrowful blues style did not suit the changing tastes of the 30s. Some singers adjusted. The microphone encouraged softer music, leading to swing.
Depression and Changing Tastes (03:18)
The Depression led to escape into larger-than-life images, ending the age of live entertainment on the vaudeville stage. The remainder of the lives of the women covered are summarized.
Credits: Wild Women Don't Have the Blues (01:54)
Credits: Wild Women Don't Have the Blues
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