[A] Article

African-American Women
Create Music

Written by Karlton E. Hester, Ph. D. (1999)



Women innovators of African-American music evolved along two lines, one vocal and the other instrumental. When Africans were stolen and brought to the Americas, both men and women worked in the fields of the plantations and, consequently, were relegated to the same social position. Because most slaves were denied access to musical instruments, both men and women were similarly deprived in that regard. Thus, the voice was most often the primary instrument of music making. As a result, women and men enjoyed fairly equal roles in the development of African-American music throughout a major portion of its early development. The blues evolution, therefore, was heavily influenced by the spirituals, work songs, and folk songs sung by both female and male vocalists. Throughout the line of musical evolution, the female voice would reemerge periodically to reassert an important influence on male-dominated instrumental music. Ronald Davis provides a description of the early blues (sung most often by men).

There is a clear distinction between the roles of women and men vocalists and instrumentalists in nineteenth-century African-American music. Many early female performers alluded to sexist African attitudes and practices that were apparently existing in the slave churches and the underground fetish religions. Slave narratives, myths, folk tales, songs, and rhymes were forms of cultural transmissions where evidence of sexist attitudes are documented: [i] "The whistling woman, and the crowing hen, / Never comes to no good end." Certain musical domains were for men alone and some exclusively for women. Letters of European and European-American eyewitness travelers who visited the South and observed American slaves performing suggest that African and African-American culture contained fewer musical and dance restrictions along sexual lines than found in most Western cultures. A gathering in Congo Square in New Orleans in 1819 is described by one of those travelers. The square became a famous center for slaves and freedmen to meet and preserve African ritual traditions through music and dance. One of the African-derived instruments mentioned by that writer was "a calabash with a round hole in it, the hole studded with brass nails, which was beaten by a woman with two short sticks." [ii]

Women in America were still not allowed to vote at the end of the nineteenth century, so their power was also limited socially, politically, and economically. Throughout the period that frames the development of early African-American music, women who exhibited too much independence were "put in their place." To sidestep limitations, women musicians eventually began to organize music guilds where they could assemble bands and orchestras to develop their skills. All-female jazz ensembles became both a curse and blessing. Womenís bands were exploited at times. Consequently, a choice between commercial gimmickry and steady work became an issue for many women instrumentalists.

African-American women and men musicians who traveled to the towns of the Mississippi plains were sometimes hired by traveling minstrel shows. Many found work in juke joints (illegal social clubs in woods located in areas of the South that often served bootleg whiskey), honky tonks (saloon bars), or bordellos (brothels). Southern juke joints were designed for working-class African-American men and women and featured blues and other dance music.

Mary Straine was the first African American woman to make a record when her legendary vaudeville routine (with celebrity Bert Williams) was produced in 1919. It was not until 1920 that the struggle to convince the European-American music establishment to record an African American female blues singer was successful. Okeh Records [iii] recorded Mamie Smith's "The Crazy Blues" and realized a success so great that the label became a rival to the larger Paramount and Columbia record industries.  Thus the doors opened for African American blues artists in the 1920s.

Following the era of male-dominated country blues singers, female-dominated classic blues style contributed significantly to the development of the early "jazz" vocabulary. Women style-setters would continue to advance the vocal and instrumental vocabularies and general blues traditions during the early twentieth century. As European-American producers cashed in on "race records," the artists were paid only for the recording date. They received no royalties (or other revenue) from sales regardless of the number of records sold. Despite the exploitation that took place, the effect the music had on American culture was undeniable. Just as the Voodoo queens had encouraged interracial interaction among women in New Orleans earlier, the powerful singing of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, Sippie Wallace and other African American blueswomen effected female European-American singers like Sophie Tucker and Connie Boswell. [iv]

Blues vocalist Bessie Smith (c. 1895 - 1937) was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee around 1895 and died in Clarksdale, Mississippi in 1937.  She went on the road while still in her teens as an apprentice to Ma Rainey on the Theater Owners' Booking Association (TOBA) circuit. By 1915 Eventually she became one of the most influential musicians in African American music. Later. Smith would almost single-handedly save Columbia records from virtual bankruptcy through the strength and popularity of her musical style. Following the powerful legacy left by the Empress of the Blues, many subsequent vocalists such as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Carmen McRae, Betty Carter, and other women would eventually lead their own bands and orchestras.

Although women instrumentalists experienced greater difficulties creating their music, they too have a rich and highly significant musical legacy. The most conspicuous period of prosperity for women instrumentalists occurred during World War II. The most renowned womenís big band of the war years was the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. The International Sweethearts of Rhythm followed the era of the Melodears to become the preeminent all-womenís band of the 1940s. Its origins trace back to 1910, when Laurence Clifton Jones founded the Piney Woods Country Life School for poor and orphaned African-American children in the Mississippi Delta.

In 1940 the International Sweethearts of Rhythm performed a successful debut concert at the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C., which was followed by another impressive engagement at the Apollo Theater in New York. Most of the bandís performances were in African-American communities, and pianist Dr. Billy Taylor remembers their impact on an audience over forty years ago: "The International Sweethearts of Rhythm created a sensation when they made their debut at Howard Theater in 1940. . . . It was unusual to see women playing all the instruments in the orchestra. The biggest surprise was their sound and the way they swung." [v]

The women disassociated themselves from the school in 1941 after learning that eight of their fellow students, who had been touring and raising money for the school for three years, were not going to graduate at the end of the term. The Sweethearts "took the school bus [they had been touring in] and, pursued by highway police, fled through seven states to Washington D.C. and freedom." [vi] They moved into a ten-room house in Arlington, Virginia, and went to work rehearsing.

Other important women composers and instrumentalists include pianists Mary Lou Williams (1910-81), Lil Hardin Armstrong, Beryl Booker, and Dorothy Donegan. In 1954, Beryl Booker and Her Trio featured tenor saxophonist Don Byas , Bonnie Wetzel on bass, and drummer Elaine Leighton. Valaida Snow was a trumpeter and vocalist who enjoyed popularity particularly during the 1930s. Organist Shirley Scott also enjoyed long and successful career. Melba Liston (1926-1999), the legendary trombonist and arranger, performed with the greatest names in "jazz" since the bebop era.

[i] Shapiro and Hentoff, Hear Me Talkiní, p. 92.
[ii] Ibid.

[iii] "Okeh" means "it is so" or "so be it" in Chocktaw

[iv] Jazzwomen: 1900 to the Present,  pp. 4-5.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Afro-American, May 3, 1941.

(c) Karlton E. Hester, Ph.D. 1999


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Living Encyclopedia of Global African Music
Received Fall 2001
Posted 07/24/2002