Queer Blues: The Hidden Figures of Early Blues Music by Darryl W. Bullock
Published by: Omnibus Press
Published 6 July 2023
Queer Blues shines a fascinating light on a little-illuminated and deeply complex pocket of US history.
Darryl W. Bullock paints a picture of a seedy underbelly forged from a country gripped by the horrors and pain of segregation, public lynchings, and, at the very root of it all, intolerance.
The true roots of the Blues are notoriously hard to trace, with conflicting first-hand accounts from sources now long since dead and buried documenting the first time they heard the equal parts guttural and melancholy “hollerin’” of the earliest initiators of the genre.
It is a time period that spans decades of oppression, segregation, and marginalisation; a time when the fringes of society were forced to forge their own paths, literally, as the road well-trodden was outlawed to them. The book covers tales of train carriages being purchased especially to transport black performers banned from travelling on already established routes, and huge tents being erected nightly in different towns as the local theatres were closed to black performers.
Bullock’s well-researched and fact-laden tome speaks quietly of loud issues. With enormous talents such as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holliday peppered throughout, it attempts to piece together the scattered birth of a much-lauded genre of music. Through closely, and almost delicately, plotting the lives of the stars that defined the genre, it seeks to understand the links that tied it with the burgeoning LGBTQ community.
It often reveals the outspoken brazenness of performers who had nothing to lose, having come from nothing, and being handed nothing along the way. The lyrics of B.D. Woman’s Blues “…one of the most outrageous, unapologetic celebrations of lesbianism ever recorded…” praises women walking “just like a natural man”. In a time of increasingly tighter binds from the laws that governed the country, such as those against liquor, the mixing of races, and homosexuality, the blues offered a kind of freedom.
Lucille Bogan’s rendition of B.D. Woman’s Blues and other so-called “dirty blues” songs are laid out by Bullock as shining beacons capturing the zeitgeist of that time, of an America barely getting to grips with its ever-changing new normal, and of a community beaten up but not beaten down.
Often shocking in its depictions of the violence experienced, an underlying thread throughout Queer Blues details the ever-present dangers associated with merely existing in America at that time as a black LGBTQ performer. Police raids and targets, community race wars, and ‘gay bashing’ all occurred in the melting pots that held (but often were barely able to contain) the drag, jazz, and blues scenes of the 1920s and 1930s—with Harlem arguably the most notorious.
The tenacity of Ma Rainey, Frankie Jaxon, and the “Empress of the Blues” herself, Bessie Smith, are charted here in a clear celebration of uninhibited freedom of expression in a time of great personal adversity.
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