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Blues Legacies & Black Feminism: Gertrude Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith & Billie Holiday

4.13 of 5 stars 4.13  ·  rating details  ·  595 ratings  ·  35 reviews
From one of this country's most important intellectuals comes a brilliant analysis of the blues tradition that examines the careers of three crucial black women blues singers through a feminist lens. Angela Davis provides the historical, social, and political contexts with which to reinterpret the performances and lyrics of Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Ho ...more
ebook, 464 pages
Published October 5th 2011 by Vintage (first published 1998)
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Feb 17, 2013 Rowena rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Rowena by: Ben
This was a very informative book about the much-overlooked impact of blues music on American culture and feminism. It’s definitely not a light read; Davis thoroughly researched her material and it’s hard to read this book in large chunks as the tone of the book is quite academic.

The book looks into the musical careers of Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holliday; three African-American singers whose music “…gave musical expression to the new social and sexual realities encountered
I devoured this like candy. Davis delineates a complex analysis of the work of the early blueswomen in relationship to gender and class issues in the African-American community in the decades following slavery. She grounds Ma Rainey's and Bessie Smith's songs and performances in historical context, considering their roots in the musical and socioeconomic history of slavery, as well as looking at ways in which they foreshadowed the political developments of the '60s and '70s.

I could have done wit
Maya B
This was a very interesting read. This book focused on the lyrics to 3 blues legends. The review of the songs makes you want to listen to their music as you read. The only thing that was missing was that Davis did not give any information on the personal lives of these artists. I recommend this book to anyone that is a fan of the blues. The author's writing is only 197 pages. The rest of the book are lyrics to songs
Jamie Howison
The blues musician and scholar Adam Gussow put me on to this book, as an important treatment on the history of the blues music tradition. Here it is the women who come to the fore, with lots of grit, humour, earthiness... and as Davis so persuasively argues, a good deal of social and political import as well. The chapter on Billie Holiday's version of "Strange Fruit" along makes it worth the read.
Overall I really loved this book and was so glad I ended up borrowing it to read on a four-hour bus ride. Davis' prose is very dense and academic, at times almost too dense to wade through. I can see that being a turn-off for many readers, and it's unfortunate, because I think there's a lot of really fabulous and useful points in here. My only other criticism is that it seemed to me Davis was sometimes contorting to get the meaning out of a song that fit her argument. I generally gave her the be ...more
Mark Brown
So I must give respect where respect is due - Angela Davis is a very smart woman. However, this book was not good. Maybe its because I am skeptical and a singer but her analysis of the voice and her seeming to "know" what these ladies were trying to portray is a bit of a stretch. It is mostly personal opinion for the most part and I found myself pushing through it to say that I had read it but not good - in my opinion.
Don't be intimidated by "464 pages"- only the first 200 are Davis' analyses, the rest are transcription sof the musical recordings of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.
Carol Jean
Some very interesting observations about the celebratory nature of the Blues -- sexual freedom, freedom to travel, freedom from slavery -- and an appreciation of the way in which Blues lyrics help to create a feeling of community among women enduring domestic violence and poverty. The earlier chapters, which analyze the oeuvres of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey are quite powerful and full of insight, though I found the later ones concerning Billie Holiday weaker and largely focused on the single son ...more
Jun 13, 2007 Lauren rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: blues fans!
WARNING: Will turn you into a rabid blues addict.
Diann Blakely
Who just won the P & W Jackson Award, a $50,000 prize given in honor of "an American poet of exceptional talent who deserves wider recognition"? Mullen teaches at UCLA, and the best imaginable description of her work comes from a former long-term resident of Los Angeles, one of my surpassingly favorite writers, Kate Braverman. While utterly singular in their respective gifts, the two women resemble each other in their subversive--if not felonious, even treacherous--phrases and cadences and m ...more
I was...disappointed in this. I knew next to nothing about Ma Rainey or Bessie Smith, but I've been a Billie Holiday fan for a few years now, and was really interested to see how she might be figured in an 'academic' text. Davis' project, on a fundamental level, is fairly innovative and well-meaning; the book sets out to place these three women within a historical continuum of African-American music, from slave songs to blues and gospel to jazz and its followers. And I did like some of the histo ...more
Nick Jones
I don’t know much about Angela Davis. I was first aware of her through John Lennon’s song and, of course, a Communist feminist who went to prison for gun running for Black nationalists is always going to be conservative America’s worst nightmare (unless she converts to Islam) she’s alright with me. And she seems to have had a respectable career in academia since and here is a solid academic book about Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, placing their music largely into the context o ...more
Strong and stimulating in its scrupulous scholarship and
passionate determination to show how three famous singers
and their many unsung sisters influenced the development
of feminism, civil rights, and music during their singing
years and long afterward. In the black community and
far beyond it. A long section of great value to future
students presents the lyrics of all extant recordings of
songs by the three featured singers. Which represents a
formidable task in itself--listening and re-liste
This review is a short version made to fit GoodReads' character limits. I strongly suggest that the reader read the FULL review under my profile's writing:

I've 'known' of Davis for decades as a black radical who was persecuted by then-Governor-Reagan &, like any black radical, the FBI. I've always been impressed by her as someone who managed to not get killed, someone who stuck out this racist insanity & who also managed to be a university profess
I think that there are a number of takeaways from this book, and just thinking about how they relate to cultural studies of today, I think they are as pertinent as ever.

The challenge to patriarchy by simply affirming sexual agency? Still today. THe revolutionary act of simply picking up and moving somewhere? Still there. The fight of middle- and upper class blacks to disengage from the history and circumstance of their working class brothers and sisters? OH SO REAL.

The points Ms. Davis makes ar
Shanice Mcbean
Another fantastic book by Angela elucidating fascinating, often hidden, aspects of black history and black women's history in particular. Though I think Angela's analysis of Billie Holiday is sometimes a bit tenuous (I feel she's afraid of recognising the humanity of Lady Day and her resultant flaws in a bid to rescue her from the problematic analysis of other writers) her analysis of "Strange Fruit" and the social consciousness of 1920s Blues women is brilliant. Blues music - whilst not explici ...more
Susan  Odetta
Here's something I re-learned in this book.....a fact I should have known....a woman was the first recorded blues artist. Before Robert Johnson and before Blind Lemon Jefferson, before Albert King and Freddie King and BBB King...there was Ma Rainey, mother of the blues. Here's what Professor Davis has to say, "The blues realm is all encompassing. In contrast to the condemnatory and censuring character of Christianity, it knows few taboos. As a cultural form that has long been a target for racist ...more
In this text, Davis exams the many facets in which Rainey, Smith, and Holiday are still relevant in any discourse involving Black American music, history, and feminism. These women and their artistry transformed the sociocultural way in which we examine and experience music, sexuality, love, and on a massive scale cross-cultural communication and issues of social justice. To get a crash course in post-slavery America at the turn of the century and many of the social justice issues that terrorize ...more
Conceptually this book shines, charging headfirst into confronting racial and sexual politics through the medium of black music placed in its social context. The ultimate execution is not so effective. The bulk of the book is actually a transcript of lyrics by the titular artists, which I found baffling and not at all helpful; if Davis had concentrated on analyzing the subtexts rather than the actual texts, this would have achieved a better purpose, more effectively. I can't help but feeling thi ...more
Angela Davis non defrauda e este libro é excelente
I originally read this book ten years ago in perhaps the most appropriate setting imaginable: on the job at a pseudo-old timey tourist trap of a coffee shop on Beale Street, Memphis TN. I'm happy to say that upon rereading, this book is as important to me now as it was then, as a Memphian, as a girl raised on the blues, and as a feminist. Recommended for anyone who doubts the contributions that black women have made to popular music, and especially to anyone who doesn't.
This text is generally good. Years ago, I did not find this book very exciting to read. Yet, I did feel the theory offered a few good nuggets here or there.

I will keep this book forever because I find the topic extremely interesting. Maybe I would enjoy the text more if I read it again today. Maybe not. I have mixed feeling about Angela Davis.
This is probably a very informative and helpful book for anyone studying music or feminism in an academic setting. For a casual read, even for someone interested in both blues and feminism, it's really dry and laborious. It does anthologize the lyrics of the women in the title however, which is a potential added bonus if you're into that sort of thing.
Angela Davis wows her reader with her research on Blues music by 3 famous (at that time) black female blues singers. The incredible lines she draws between lyrics and what they told us about black society at that time is amazing. She is a fantastic writer. This is a book that I savored.
Dec 16, 2007 Jessica rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Blues fans
Perhaps I this book would have struck more of a chord in me if I were more of a Blues fan... but there's no getting around that the women who sang the Blues definitely were fighting white and male power... and that is awesome, even if you don't listen so much to the music.
Read this for one of my Black studies courses back in the day when I knew nothing of jazz, blues, or the female musicians who injected a their own version and flair of feminist theology in to their songs. Great writer. Great book.
Feb 06, 2008 Charlotte rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone interested in musical history and the Womyn who helped shape it.
Excellent – does an incredible job in analyzing - interconnecting forms of oppression. Also uncovers priceless historical information about three gems in music.
Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday by Angela Y. Davis (1998)
the book was interesting but i'd like it if angela davis added a little more fact and a little less pontificating.
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Angela Yvonne Davis is an American political activist, scholar, and author. She emerged as a nationally prominent activist and radical in the 1960s, as a leader of the Communist Party USA, and had close relations with the Black Panther Party through her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement despite never being an official member of the party. Prisoner rights have been among her continuing inter ...more
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