QUEER BLUES - The Hidden Figures of Early Blues Music
Darryl W Bullock
The subtitle of Queer Blues is a crucial addendum. The figures, the artists and performers that Darryl W Bullock writes about are not only hidden in history but often lived lives that were sometimes hidden, because their fame was short-lived, or because, as Black artists, they just didn’t figure in the overwhelmingly white-owned media of America in the early 20th century, or because they needed to be safe.
The impression given in this exhaustively researched and sometimes exhausting book is of lives lived half in shadow, half in the glare of incandescent lamps. Some who were household names, and who drew crowds of thousands to their concerts, were almost immediately cast back into an alarmingly wicked world of psychic torture and physical danger as soon as they stepped off the stage. For the many LGBTQ artists this was doubly so, having to negotiate a world where their skin colour made them targets but their sexual identity meant they couldn’t always trust other Black people. And for Black, gay women there was yet another layer of male violence and exploitation.
And yet, as the book explains, there was a thriving, complicated and successful industry that grew around these artists, many of whom I had never heard of. Working in a hostile environment and only a few decades after slavery’s abolition, Black producers and promoters created circuits - venue, transport and accommodation solutions to the often bizarre and wilfully cruel mandates of white power, particularly in the southern states. And within this industry shone lively, original artists such as Frankie ‘Half Pint’ Jaxon, Bessie Smith, Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey and Ethel Waters, as well as composers and songwriters and musicians who created what became the popular music idiom that remains today.
These are often either almost forgotten or unsung or ‘adapted’ lives, filtered through decades of white-led journalism and the social self-flagellation of America’s McCarthy years. The ‘gayness’ expunged and the achievements in the face of white racism assumed by a largely white-owned music industry.
Queer Blues is so immensely respectful it becomes almost a quasi, alternative tombstone memorial for those artists, such as Bessie Smith or Gladys Bentley who were interred either without a marker or in circumstances that would have them rolling in their graves. It’s a clear-eyed description of the real history of popular music in the 20th century, one where the line isn’t drawn straight from a poor Black ex-slave accidentally recorded by a well-meaning anthropologist to a Led Zeppelin show in a stadium, but where a fabulous and socially influential group of Black, gay and queer artists made their own history, made and sold hundreds of thousands of records and performed in front of probably millions over several decades.
Darryl manages, within this mass of information, to create, using snippets of contemporary journalism, vibrant pictures of the chaotic world many of the artists described lived in. The rent parties, the late hour dives and hooch joints, the endless travelling and the joy of self-contained troupes of singers, dancers and musicians. The affairs, the gossip and the moments when this netherworld was suddenly apparent in the lives of white Americans, none of it glamourised, but brought to life.
If you think you know the history of popular music, if you think you are an aficionado of the blues, you need to read this book.
ethel waters revisits a song from her heyday, "Suppertime"
Queer Blues is available now
Read Tim London's interview with the author, Darryl W Bullock here