Singing the Lesbian Blues in 1920s Harlem

July 9th, 2013

When Gertrude “Ma” Rainey—known as “The Mother of Blues”—sang, “It’s true I wear a collar and a tie, … Talk to the gals just like any old man,” in 1928′s “Prove It on Me,” she was flirting with scandal, challenging the listener to catch her in a lesbian affair. It might not seem like a big deal to us now, but back then, pursuing same-sex relations could get you thrown in jail.

“It was under the cover of night, because they could be prosecuted for same-sex activity.”

The good news for women-loving chanteuses like Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Gladys Bentley is that blues music in the 1920s was so far under the radar of mainstream America, female blues singers could get away with occasionally expressing their unconventional desires. That said, they all felt obligated to produce song after song about loving and losing men.

“I don’t want to overplay the significance of the three songs that Ma Rainey wrote and recorded that had some references to lesbianism and homosexuality,” says Robert Philipson, who directed the 2011 documentary, “T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness: Queer Blues Divas of the 1920s.” “That’s a handful out of hundreds and hundreds of blues songs that were recorded. The fact that there were any was remarkable, given the times. You certainly never saw it in any other part of American culture.”

Top: Cabaret singer and pianist Gladys Bentley, who performed in a tuxedo, drew a crowd to the Clam House in Harlem in the 1920s. (Postcard image via QueerMusicHeritage.us) Above: Ma Rainey, "The Mother of the Blues," sang about pursuing women on a handful of tunes. (1917 image via WikiCommons)

Top: Cabaret singer and pianist Gladys Bentley, who performed in a tuxedo, drew a crowd to the Clam House in Harlem in the 1920s. (Postcard image via QueerMusicHeritage.us) Above: Ma Rainey, “The Mother of the Blues,” sang about pursuing women on a handful of tunes. (1917 image via WikiCommons)

A writer and lecturer with a Ph.D. in comparative literature, Philipson got intrigued by hints such as these when he was starting out as a filmmaker and preparing for a course on the early 20th century African American art and literature explosion known as the Harlem Renaissance. “I kept running into these tidbits about this person being gay or that person being bisexual,” he says.

These clues intrigued Philipson, who saw the potential for a documentary—and in 2008, he finished his first film, “Take the Gay Train,” which traces the threads of gay sensibility running through the Harlem Renaissance. Often, though, the desire to prove that black Americans, less than half a century out of slavery, could be as artistic and literate as their white counterparts went hand in hand with adopting the “proper Christian values” of middle-class Edwardians.

Mona's, the first openly lesbian club, began in a basement in San Francisco's North Beach district in 1936. Bentley was a regular performer here. (Via ashtray collector Hock_venom's Flickr page)

Mona’s, the first openly lesbian club, began in a basement in San Francisco’s North Beach district in 1936. Bentley was a regular performer here. (Via ashtray collector Hock_venom’s Flickr page)

The blues community, however, had no such concerns about respectability, and that’s where Philipson found the most references to homosexuality. Which is why, three years after “Gay Train,” he followed up with another documentary, this time focusing exclusively on female blues singers with lesbian proclivities.

As it turns out, the blues world was the perfect realm for people who were thought of as “sexual deviants” to inhabit, as it thrived far outside the scope of the dominant white American culture in the early 20th century. In Jazz Age speakeasies, dive bars, and private parties, blue singers had the freedom to explore alternative sexuality, and on a rare occasion, they even expressed it in song.

Ma Rainey's protégé and master of dirty "hokum" blues, Bessie Smith kept a female lover on the road with her.

Ma Rainey’s protégé and master of dirty “hokum” blues, Bessie Smith kept a female lover on the road with her.

“In lyrics, they talk about ‘bulldaggers,’ which is they called butch lesbians at that time, or ‘BD women,’ ‘BD’ being short for bulldaggers,” Philipson says. “There were references to being ‘in the life,’ which was understood to mean same-sex activity.”

In 1930’s “The Boy in the Boat,” Ma Rainey’s protégé, Bessie Smith sang, “When you see two women walking hand in hand, just look ‘em over and try to understand: They’ll go to those parties—have the lights down low—only those parties where women can go.” A married woman who kept a female lover on the road with her, Smith is known to have exploded at a girlfriend, “I got twelve women on this show, and I can have one every night if I want it.”

Bentley with bandleader Willie Bryant in 1936. (Via QueerMusicHeritage.us)

Bentley with bandleader Willie Bryant in 1936. (Via QueerMusicHeritage.us)

With short cropped hair and a tuxedo, the lesser-known Gladys Bentley commandeered the crowd at Harlem’s Clam House in the 1920s, singing cabaret, tickling the piano keys, and flirting shamelessly with the women in the audience. The only one of these women to openly exploit her lesbian identity, she was known for taking popular songs and giving them lewd lyrics; and she asked the audience to help her improvise naughty lines.

“Harlem’s 133rd Street was called ‘Jungle Alley,’ because there were so many nightclubs on it,” Philipson says, explaining that Harlem had the only Roaring Twenties jazz clubs and cabarets in the country that drew white “tourists” curious about “race music.” “The Clam House was famous because it had Bentley, reveling in her image as a ‘bulldagger.’ Because of her, it became a place where black lesbians and gay men would go to hang out. White sightseers from downtown would check out her show as well.”

This 1932 map of Harlem nightclubs show Gladys' Clam House, boasting that she wears "a tuxedo and highhat." (Via YeahMan.com, Ventura, CA, Swing Dance Club)

This 1932 map of Harlem nightclubs show Gladys’ Clam House, boasting that she wears “a tuxedo and highhat.” (Via YeahMan.com, Ventura, CA, Swing Dance Club)

Other blues singers delving into “the life” tried to keep it behind closed doors—and the lack of modern technology and online celebrity-gossip hounds made it possible to do so. In the ’20s, blues and jazz vocalist Ethel Waters, a lesbian, was involved with a dancer named Ethel Williams, as a couple known to friends as “The Two Ethels,” according to a 2007 biography of Waters by Stephen Bourne. They even lived together as lovers, a very disreputable act at the time, which Waters managed to keep out of all 20th-century biographies about herself.

Because she succeeded in the more refined European cabaret scene, blues singer and songwriter Alberta Hunter concealed and refused to speak about her lesbianism, according to Bonnie Zimmerman’s encyclopedia “Lesbian Histories and Cultures.” Hunter’s biographer Frank C. Taylor wrote that the vocalist, who also lived with her long-term girlfriend, Lottie Tyler, would cringe every time a lesbian performer, like her friend Ethel Waters, would have a lover’s spat in public.

Ethel Waters got her start on the vaudeville circuit. Here, she poses for a publicity photo for the 1929 film "On With the Show," in which she sings "Birmingham Bertha." (Via songbook1.wordpress.com)

Ethel Waters got her start on the vaudeville circuit. Here, she poses for a publicity photo for the 1929 film “On With the Show,” in which she sings “Birmingham Bertha.” (Via songbook1.wordpress.com)

“What was occurring was occurring clandestinely or within urban settings that were more or less secret and difficult to penetrate,” Philipson says. “It was very much under the cover of night, because they could be prosecuted for same-sex activity. There were some open demonstrations of alternative sexuality in the Harlem Renaissance and in Greenwich Village in the late ’20s. Take for example, ‘the Pansy Craze,’ where Harlem drag balls were attended by sightseers and celebrities. There were also drag performers in cabarets, but that was very much the exception.”

Alberta Hunter was hush-hush about her lesbian lifestyle. (Via JazzAgeMusic.blogspot.com)

Alberta Hunter was hush-hush about her lesbian lifestyle. (Via JazzAgeMusic.blogspot.com)

The blues itself was condemned by black preachers. After the turn of the century, smokey blues cabarets proliferated in urban areas with large African American populations, which would draw almost exclusively black audiences, who made Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith stars. (The Cotton Club in Harlem, which only allowed white audience members to watch black performers, was a notable exception.) By the 1920s, certain urban studios were recording blues songs, producing shellac 78s known as “race records.”

Around the same time, urban industrialization, the development of the electrical grid, and the introduction of cars gave young women more personal money, free time, and options than they ever had before. In the late 1910s, so-called “flappers” rejected the constricting corsets of their Victorian mothers, wearing short haircuts and skin-exposing dresses that were both androgynous and provocative. These women went out dancing and drinking at clubs, and embraced promiscuity.

It’s likely that the flapper movement took some cues from these blues divas, who were on the cutting edge of that sexual revolution in the 1910s, flouting conventions about proper women left and right. “They drank, and they dressed in a flashy and flamboyant manner,” Philipson says. “They were not subservient to men in any fashion, and that was not the model of post-Victorian womanhood that was in mainstream culture at the turn of the century.

Alberta Hunter, far right, performs vaudeville. (Via Vaudeville.org)

Alberta Hunter, far right, performs vaudeville. (Via Vaudeville.org)

“All these women had come from working-class, or even more marginal backgrounds, in one of the worst periods of racial segregation in American history,” he continues. “And they were making money and careers for themselves during a period when that was very unusual for black women. But oftentimes, having come from poverty, they didn’t know how to hold on to money.”

“They drank, they were not subservient to men in any fashion—not the mainstream model of womanhood.”

While the newfound freedom of living large on the road may have inspired some of the racier lyrics Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith sang, these songs celebrating booze and lust may also have roots in “coon songs” from 19th-century minstrel shows. At these popular Victorian touring shows, white actors in blackface played racist caricatures of African Americans as simple, lazy buffoons with insatiable appetites for food, alcohol, and sex.

In the 1840s, William Henry Lane and Thomas Dilward became the first black actors to play minstrels. By the late 1800s, all-black minstrel troupes were taking off, and while they were upholding stereotypes, they often worked to slyly subvert the racist jokes and make subtle jabs at white supremacy. (In his 1974 book “Blacking Up,” Robert Toll describes one jubilee from a black minstrel show that depicts heaven as a place “where de white folks must let the darkeys be,” where they wouldn’t be “bought and sold.”) When vaudeville variety shows supplanted minstrel shows, black performers were still expected to play minstrel-type characters.

Ma Rainey, who was bisexual, got her stage name when she married vaudeville performer Pa Rainey. (Via NotesOnTheRoad.com)

Ma Rainey, who was bisexual, got her stage name when she married vaudeville performer Pa Rainey. (Via NotesOnTheRoad.com)

In fact, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Ethel Waters all got their start singing and dancing on the turn-of-the-century vaudeville circuit. So it’s not surprising these women went on to revel in the saucy sexual innuendo of what became known as dirty or “hokum” blues. In Waters’ 1928 song “My Handy Man,” she sings, “He shakes my ashes, greases my griddle, churns my butter, strokes my fiddle. My man is such a handy man!”

The lowdown dirty blues was a far cry from upright, ambitious lifestyle promoted by the leadership class of African Americans that W.E.B. Du Bois referred to as “The Talented Tenth” in 1903, who were establishing black colleges and assimilating in the world of white Edwardians.

Ma Rainey, pictured in 1925, and other blues divas of the era usually performed with a backing band. (Via NotesOnTheRoad.com)

Ma Rainey, pictured in 1925, and other blues divas of the era usually performed with a backing band. (Via NotesOnTheRoad.com)

“The black bourgeoisie, the aspiring post-Victorian middle-class blacks, were very hostile to homosexuality,” Philipson says. “They were not the majority of the black community, but they were trying to set themselves up as the leaders. Post-Victorian morals were that you have no premarital sex, you get married, you raise a family, you stay together all of your life, you go to church, and you raise proper Christian children who take their place in society and reproduce.”

Clearly, these lesbian-leaning blues singers were forging their own paths in a shifting cultural landscape. “No time to marry, no time to settle down,” Bessie Smith sang on 1926′s “Young Woman’s Blues.” “I’m a young woman, and I ain’t done runnin’ around.”

(For more information on Robert Philipson and his documentaries, visit the Shoga Films site. Recommend reading: Eric Garber’s paper, “A Spectacle in Color: The Lesbian and Gay Subculture of Jazz Age Harlem”; Queer Cultural Center’s article, “Gladys Bentley: The Bulldagger Who Sang the Blues”; Bitch Magazine’s article, “Adventures in Feministory: Gladys Bentley”; Chris Albertson’s paper, “Lesbianism in the Life of Bessie Smith”; Stephen Bourne’s book, “Ethel Waters: Stormy Weather”; Frank C. Taylor’s book, “Alberta Hunter: A Celebration in Blues”; Bonnie Zimmerman’s encyclopedia, “Lesbian Histories and Cultures.”)

9 comments so far

  1. JD Doyle Says:

    And, your readers may want to hear the music of Gladys Bentley, including some unreleased material, at the edition of Queer Music Heritage featuring her, along with a thorough resource section, here:
    http://www.queermusicheritage.us/feb2013.html

  2. rewinn Says:

    “It is better to be under the radar than on it in any capacity”
    –Terminal Lance

  3. Upsetter FC Says:

    Why is there no mention of Lucille Bogan? She is the first person I thought of when I saw the article’s title.

  4. prof-carrington Says:

    Also, if you’ve got the time, check out this fascinating book by James Wilson:

    http://www.amazon.com/Bulldaggers-Pansies-Chocolate-Babies-Triangulations/dp/0472034898/

  5. Russell A. Potter Says:

    Great article. I am an enormous admirer of Gladys Bentley; I have many of her original recordings, and someone ought to do a biography of her! One of the more strange and sad moments of her life came late, after she’d been subjected to an early form of anti-gay “therapy” and gotten married to a purported African prince, when she appeared as a guest on Groucho Marx’s “You Bet Your Life” — she belted ‘em out as powerfully as ever, and had Groucho tapping his toes in appreciation!

  6. vetraio50 Says:

    Thanks Lisa for a great article!

  7. Clifton Tipton Says:

    Bessie Smith very well might’ve sang it in the ’30′s, but she did not record ‘The Boy in the Boat”. She did record a song in 1926 called “Squeeze Me”, written by Fats Waller and purportedly derived from “The Boy in the Boat”.
    Very interesting article!

  8. Hank Millbourne Says:

    For me it just affirms that Black gay, lesbian and transgenderpersonshavealways been a part of our community, even those those labels were not present many yearrs ago. My one affirmation as a young man was when my aunt showed me a picture of my great uncle, a very handsome man who danced with Josephine Baker. She tolde
    ” we loved him to death and we love you, so don’t you ever think we we won’t love you.” I have a photograph of him on my wall today as a an historical affirmation of who I am..a proud same gender loving black man.

  9. Hank Millbourne Says:

    That is a treasured part of my history.


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