The purpose of this report was for me to research and explore the connection between African American women and music. Since prior to the slave decades, music has been an integral part of African American society, and served as a form of social, economic, and emotional support in African American communities in the past and present. This paper will cover three different types of secular music that emerged during the slave days, through the civil war, reconstruction, and depression periods. They are blues, jazz, and gospel music. Each of these forms of music are still in existence today.
In addition to exploring the history of each of these genres of music, this report will identify three African American female music legends, Bessie Smith, Emma Barrett, and Mahalia Jackson. Blues emerged in the period between the end of the civil war, and the beginning of the 20th century. Originating in the fields of the rural south, it became popular after the emancipation of the slaves. In this form of music, the singer and composer is one in the same, a characteristic not evident in the spiritual songs of the slave communities. Spirituals were somewhat of a passage way for blues.
Blues followed blacks to urban societies as spirituals followed the slaves onto the plantations. The differences between these types of music were that spirituals were collective, whereas an individual sang blues. Blues attributed to the evolution of black society toward individualism after the collective society of slavery. Blues became know as the music of the black working class. It was a way for African Americans to express the modern problems of economics, social errors, and poverty and power struggles they faced after they became free. African Americans were still living in unjust societies, where jobs were hard to find.
They began to migrate north, but the case remained the same. They used music for economic gain in nightclubs, corner halls, publishing, and recording. One of the greatest African American female blues singers was Bessie Smith. She was born on April 15, 1894 or 1898. The exact date is unknown. Her father William was a preacher, who died when Bessie was very young. This left her mother to raise seven children on her own. When Bessie was nine years old, her mother Laura had passed away, and two of her brothers had died as well. The oldest sister brought up the five remaining brothers and sisters.
Prior to the death of Bessie’s mother, she was singing on a street corner to the accompaniment of her brother’s guitar. The money that she made went to support the family. At the age of eighteen, she began performing professionally as a dancer. While traveling the south and mid-west, she met Ma Rainey, “The Mother of Blues”. She joined the most influential agency handling black artists, Theater Owners’ Booking Association (TOBA). In February 1923, Bessie recorded for Columbia Record Company. Her songs “Down-hearted Blues” and “Gulf Coast Blues” sold 780,000 copies in less than six months.
The contract Bessie signed with Columbia yielded a $20,000 yearly salary. Her popularity increased rapidly, and TOBA was able to book her for theater and club shows paying up to $2,500 per week for personal appearances. Life for Bessie became hectic, as she was unable to manage such large sums of money. By 1928, her popularity leveled off due to a decline in the popularity of blues. In addition to this, TOBA folded in the summer of 1930. In the same year, Columbia renegotiated her contract for half of the original contract of 1923. And, in 1931, Columbia dropped her altogether.
The swing era was emerging, and taking over where blues was leaving off. Bessie attempted to make a transition to the new genre of music. Late September 26, 1937, she left Memphis, Tennessee, for Darling Mississippi, when her car struck a parked van. Bessie died the following morning at a black hospital. She was buried in Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania. Like blues, jazz began to shape during slavery, and in the years after the civil war. The end of slavery meant the end of an isolation period that prevented blacks from sharing ideas and art forms such as music.
Jazz differed from blues, because it was not much different than the slave spirituals. Jazz was an approach to feelings, personal expression, pain and pleasure of physical life. It was combination of spirituals and a new form of music. Black women contributed to the development of jazz. During slavery, they wrote songs about, and that became a part of every day experience. In the late 1800’s, ex-slaves bought small organs. Work songs and spirituals were recreated on the organs. This became a main source of family entertainment, and the creation of jazz music. New Orleans, Louisiana became the first great jazz center.