Pressed to call to mind the image of a blues singer, most people would no doubt picture a singer holding a guitar, perhaps playing that guitar with a slide. Unless it's Eric Clapton, this singer is almost certainly African-American. And here's another sure thing: he's male. That is actually quite strange, given that the first blues hit was recorded by a woman, and that the most iconic performers of the classic blues era (the 1920s) were all women as well. So what happened?
Basically, a historical accident. Through the 1920s, female singers dominated the blues on record. An authoritative estimate suggests that in 1921 and 1922, blues recordings were released at a rate of about one per week.24 Many of these early songs featured jazz instrumentalists fronted by female cabaret singers or vaudeville performers, most of who came from a professional performance background decidedly removed from the folksier origins of the blues. Mamie Smith emerged from the vaudeville circuit and was championed by Perry Bradford in 1920 as the singer that would help Okeh Records tap into both a black record purchasing audience and a white market for black music. When Smith's recording of "Crazy Blues" sold 75,000 copies within the first month of its release (a tremendous smash for the time), the phenomenon of "race records" was born.25 In the wake of Okeh's success with Smith, the major record companies raced to record and distribute first other classic blues artists like Mamie Smith and then rawer artists, like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and the folk blues performers, like Charley Patton and Blind Lemon Jefferson. The significance of the cash-in that began with the release of "Crazy Blues" is hard to overstate. For Mamie Smith, it meant wealth and stardom (although she would die basically destitute in 1946, at the age of sixty-three). For her peers, most notably Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, it meant an open door.
Ma Rainey, although also a vaudeville performer, had a much folksier, earthier appeal than Mamie Smith. By the time of her first recording in 1923, she was already a well traveled, word-of-mouth star among black audiences and had reputedly been performing the blues since 1902.26 Even after her recording debut, Rainey remained more prominent as a performer, a capacity in which she cut a truly singular figure. She was short and heavyset, never described as attractive, and given to ostentation, often appearing in plumes and sequins and adorned with a chain of twenty gold coins on her neck. She had a reputation for promiscuity and was widely rumored to be bisexual. And yet for all of this, she had a genius for convincing her audience (many of them poor and country) that she was one of them, that she understood. As a black woman who had achieved spectacular success and lived so clearly on her own terms, Ma Rainey was indeed one of a kind and a celebrity that provided no small amount of inspiration to her fans. Perhaps even more remarkable is the fact that when she retired from show business, she devoted herself to church work in her hometown of Columbus, Georgia.
The only singer to rival Ma Rainey in her heyday was Bessie Smith, who also began recording in 1923, riding the wave of blues enthusiasm after "Crazy Blues". Her very first hit, a version of "Down Hearted Blues", sold a staggering 750,000 copies, and over the next decade, Smith, a more flexible and sophisticated singer than Rainey, developed a nationwide following that included a large contingent of urban, white northerners. With a frankly sexual appeal and a sometimes imperious demeanor, Smith—like Rainey—visibly challenged the era's rigid norms of race and gender in a way that would have been basically unimaginable before the 1920s.
The close of the '20s, that remarkable decade, brings us to our historical accident. Popular memory of the 1930s is dominated, rightly, by the experience of the Great Depression. The collapse of the financial system, the Dust Bowl, and the rise of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal are familiar stories to most readers. Less known, perhaps, is the fact that the record industry basically collapsed during the Depression as well. Some performers (early country stars, for instance) found their way to radio, but the Depression effectively ended the careers of the classic blues artists, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith among them. The blues itself fell largely back to folk tradition and local black audiences for a while, and when it recovered national prominence again in the 1960s, that recovery was driven by the "rediscovery" of rural blues artists by young, Leftist, and mostly male, whites.
These blues revivalists were most interested not in the classic blues with its vaudeville trappings and jazzy, cabaret singers but in another type of blues that had been recorded in the wake of Okeh's success with Mamie Smith. Beginning in the mid-1920s, record company A & R (artist and repertory) men and a few musicologists ventured into the rural South with field recording equipment and captured some of the folk blues of artists like Charley Patton and Blind Lemon Jefferson. These were the kinds of records that would inspire the blues revival of the 1960s. The revivalists were looking for an "authenticity" that they equated with the rural folk blues, particularly that of the Mississippi Delta region. What they were not looking for, it turned out, was the more urban, jazzier sounds of the classic blues queens like Bessie Smith.
While the folk blues went on to inspire a new generation of largely white folk enthusiasts and blues rockers, the legacy of the classic blues and the women who made it has been decidedly lower-profile. Other than Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, most of the classic blues singers (the great Ida Cox and Lucille Bogan among them) have drifted from popular memory. And although there have been fine female blues performers in nearly every era of the blues since the '20s (from Memphis Minnie to Janis Joplin and Bonnie Raitt), there has never been another time when women so dominated the genre and made the blues so much their own.