David Hajdu: The Surprising Queer Roots of the Blues

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David Hajdu is the music critic for The New Republic and a professor of arts journalism at Columbia

...R&B, a music that’s for and about romantic seduction, tends in its lyrics to trade in the corny formulas of hetero sex roles, though the groove and the atmosphere of the music carry far more weight than the words, which, one assumes, the listeners are too busy at romance to listen to. Hip-hop, wrapped up as it is in tropes of male prowess, conquest, domination, and acquisition, has never been particularly gay-friendly. Yet, the music that both R&B and hip-hop grew from, the blues of the early 20th century, was far from homophobic. In fact, it's probably accurate to say that the breakthrough blues of the 1920s, the material that established the blues in the public consciousness, was the gayest music in America.

A good 15 years before Robert Johnson did his first recording, the blues were well established by a group of early innovators: women such as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Ida Cox, and Sippie Wallace, among many others. Through both the content of their music and the content of their public images and performance styles, they presented radically potent messages of sexual disconformity and womanly independence of mind and body. Their music was widely popular—Mamie Smith's record of “Crazy Blues” sold more than 100,000 copies to white and black listeners in 1920, when Robert Johnson was probably four years old—and it was profoundly, but entertainingly transgressive. In a broad sense, the “blues queens” and their work embodied big, bad challenges to the Victrola-era image of women as pretty little objects of male desire. Further, the music was sometimes an outlet for subtle (and occasionally not so subtle) expressions of female same-sex desire....

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