Thursday, 23 October 2014

Renaissance Women

Following on from my article last Sunday on lgbt Renaissance composers here’s a look at a more recent group of lgbt Renaissance musicians, those in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s.

It is something of a misnomer to call the movement a true Renaissance. There was no consolidated or focussed cultural or artistic past to be reborn, unlike the medieval Renaissance which saw the rebirth of learning and art resulting from the rediscovery of long forgotten and ignored Ancient Greek writings.

The Harlem Renaissance began quietly and was a consolidation of many cultural influences from African-American communities as they converged on New York City in what is called the Great Migration at the end of the 19th century. The consolidation of these influences began to be noticed in the 1920s when many African-Americans began publishing their writings and new musical experiences of modern cabaret, blues and jazz were being created.

When we look back at the Harlem Renaissance we see many names emerging as pioneers of black American culture. Many of these names are of women. But we must remember that the culture of 1920s USA, even though it seems close to ours, was different. In her recent undergraduate thesis “Women-Loving Women: Queering Black Urban Space During the Harlem Renaissance” Samantha C. Tenorio points out that within the black community of the period the term “women-loving women” “…implied a particular intersectional identity of race, gender, sexuality, and often class, due to the systemic impact of racism that produced wealth inequality, wherein the woman-loving woman’s identity as a black, often working-class, woman of non-normative sexuality located her at the lowest position of almost all social hierarchies in the United States…” Today the contributions and influence of women to the Harlem Renaissance is seen as equal to that of the men, but it wasn’t thought so at the time.

The fact that the majority of those involved were of the first generation of black Americans not born into slavery is very important. Despite their lack of wealth and property they were able to find a self expression which their parents and grandparents never had.

This new self expression included the freedom to meet and socialise in public. Nowhere can this be more evident than in the music and entertainment venues whose influence spread throughout the rest of the 20th century.

Jazz and the blues are both seen as deriving from the music of the slaves and the southern states. The blues continued the slave-music convention of expressing a desire and hope for an improvement in the singer’s life. The desire to be free from slavery turned into a desire to be happy, wealthy or accepted in society. Acceptance included sexual orientation, and many of the famous female blues singers of the Harlem Renaissance sang about same-sex acceptance.

No-one expressed this same-sex acceptance in blues more openly than Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (1886-1939), who is known as “the Mother of the Blues”. She was one of many female performers who began their career on the American vaudeville stage of the southern states. It was on that circuit that Rainey first heard the blues. Using influences from both southern country and northern urban sounds Rainey developed the blues into a medium which became popular with all audiences and became commercial enough for record producers to start marketing the blues to Americans of all heritages and social groups.

Sexuality was a large element in both Rainey’s performance and lyrics, using this in her most well-known song, “Prove It On Me Blues” in which she challenges the listener to catch her with anther woman. It was performed with a knowing look, and it is generally accepted that Rainey was indeed bisexual.

During a tour of Tennessee another influential blues singer joined Ma Rainey’s show. She was the “Empress of the Blues”, Bessie Smith (1894-1937). To say Bessie led a colourful life is an understatement. Hers is also a genuine “rags to riches” story of how a woman from a poor black family used her talents to amass wealth. Most of this was achieved through a recording contract. In 1923 Bessie’s recording of “Down-Hearted Blues” sold over three quarters of a million copies in America in 6 months.

Bessie’s private life was hardly private at all. She never his her tempestuous, sometimes violent, temper, nor her sexual preferences for both men and women. She led the sort of life to which legends attached themselves, though one story may be true. It is said that she once shouted at a female lover that she had 12 women in her show and she could sleep with one every night if she wanted.

Bessie’s untimely death, like so many others of legendary performers, is also surrounded by legend. The plain truth is that she died from injuries she sustained in a car accident in 1937 at the age of 43.

From these influential pioneers, and from other female performers of the Harlem Renaissance, blues and jazz disseminated across the whole of American society and established itself as a timeless genre which still has many fans and performers to this day.

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