‘Tain’t Nobody’s Business: songs by [B]lack women who slept with other women, dressed like men, and sang about it.
01. Boy in the Boat—George Honnoh 02. Prove It On Me Blues—Ma Rainey 03. I Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl—Bessie Smith 04. You Can’t Tell The Difference After Dark—Alberta Hunter 05. Lay It On the Line—Gladys Bentley 06. Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out—Bessie Smith 07. Foolish Man Blues—Bessie Smith 08. B.D. Woman’s Blues—Bessie Jackson 09. (I Want To Go Where You Go, Do What You Do) Then I’ll Be Happy—Joséphine Baker 10. Am I Blue?—Ethel Waters 11. ‘Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do—Gladys Bentley 12. Worried Blues—Gladys Bentley 13. Gimme All the Love You Got—Alberta Hunter 14. Stormy Weather—Ethel Waters 15. I Want Every Bit of It—Bessie Smith 16. Hound Dog—Big Mama Thornton
‘Tain’t Nobody’s Business: songs by [B]lack women who slept with other women, dressed like men, and sang about it. Not every song on here is about women with women or men with men, but there’s a decent amount of queer blues songs out there. (Also, there is one male artist on here, but “boy in the boat” is the best euphemism for the clit and kaboodle that I’ve heard in a while, and any song that blames WWI for lesbianism because all these women were left by themselves needs to be included.)
*(minus tracks 03, 06, and 15 because 8tracks can’t handle my love of Bessie Smith)
Anna May Wong/Huáng Liǔshuāng/黃柳霜: Why she kicks ass
- She was the first Chinese American movie star, and the first Asian American actress to gain international recognition. Her long and varied career spanned both silent and sound film, television, stage, and radio.
- At the age of 17 she played her first leading role, in the early Metro two-strip Technicolor movie The Toll of the Sea. Written by Frances Marion, the story was based loosely on Madama Butterfly. The New York Times commented, “Miss Wong stirs in the spectator all the sympathy her part calls for, and she never repels one by an excess of theatrical ‘feeling’. She has a difficult role, a role that is botched nine times out of ten, but hers is the tenth performance. Completely unconscious of the camera, with a fine sense of proportion and remarkable pantomimic accuracy … She should be seen again and often on the screen.”
- During the silent film era, she acted in The Toll of the Sea (1922), one of the first movies made in color and Douglas Fairbanks‘ The Thief of Bagdad (1924). Wong became a fashion icon, and by 1924 had achieved international stardom
- However, due to anti-miscegenation laws, she was often passed over for the leading female role, which prevented her from sharing an on-screen kiss with any person of another race.There was only one leading Asian man in U.S. films in the silent era, so unless Asian leading men could be found, she could not be a leading lady.
- In the late 1930s, she starred in several B movies for Paramount Pictures, portraying Chinese Americans in a positive light. These smaller-budgeted films could be bolder than the higher-profile releases, and she used this to her advantage to portray successful, professional, Chinese-American characters.
- She paid less attention to her film career during World War II, when she devoted her time and money to helping the Chinese cause against Japan.
- She returned to the public eye in the 1950s in several television appearances as well as her own series in 1951, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, the first U.S. television show starring an Asian-American series lead.
- She often used her celebrity to make political statements: late in 1931, for example, she wrote a harsh criticism of the Mukden Incidentand Japan’s subsequent invasion of Manchuria. She also became more outspoken in her advocacy for Chinese American causes and for better film roles. In a 1933 interview for Film Weekly entitled “I Protest”, Wong criticized the negative stereotyping in Daughter of the Dragon, saying, “Why is it that the screen Chinese is always the villain? And so crude a villain – murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass! We are not like that. How could we be, with a civilization that is so many times older than the West?”
- In 1934, the Mayfair Mannequin Society of New York voted her “The World’s best-dressed woman”, and in 1938 Look magazine named her “The World’s most beautiful Chinese girl”.
- In a stopover in Tokyo on the way to Shanghai, local reporters, ever curious about her romantic life, asked if she had marriage plans, to which Wong replied, “No, I am wedded to my art.” The following day, however, Japanese newspapers reported that Wong was married to a wealthy Cantonese man named Art.
When Gertrude “Ma” Rainey—known as “The Mother of Blues”—sang, “It’s true I wear a collar and a tie, … Talk to the gals just like any old man,” in 1928′s “Prove It on Me,” she was flirting with scandal, challenging the listener to catch her in a lesbian affair. It might not seem like a big deal to us now, but back then, pursuing same-sex relations could get you thrown in jail.
“It was under the cover of night, because they could be prosecuted for same-sex activity.”
The good news for women-loving chanteuses like Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Gladys Bentley is that blues music in the 1920s was so far under the radar of mainstream America, female blues singers could get away with occasionally expressing their unconventional desires. That said, they all felt obligated to produce song after song about loving and losing men.
“I don’t want to overplay the significance of the three songs that Ma Rainey wrote and recorded that had some references to lesbianism and homosexuality,” says Robert Philipson, who directed the 2011 documentary, “T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness: Queer Blues Divas of the 1920s.” “That’s a handful out of hundreds and hundreds of blues songs that were recorded. The fact that there were any was remarkable, given the times. You certainly never saw it in any other part of American culture.”
A writer and lecturer with a Ph.D. in comparative literature, Philipson got intrigued by hints such as these when he was starting out as a filmmaker and preparing for a course on the early 20th century African American art and literature explosion known as the Harlem Renaissance. “I kept running into these tidbits about this person being gay or that person being bisexual,” he says.
These clues intrigued Philipson, who saw the potential for a documentary—and in 2008, he finished his first film, “Take the Gay Train,” which traces the threads of gay sensibility running through the Harlem Renaissance. Often, though, the desire to prove that black Americans, less than half a century out of slavery, could be as artistic and literate as their white counterparts went hand-in-hand with adopting the “proper Christian values” of middle-class Edwardians.
The blues community, however, had no such concerns about respectability, and that’s where Philipson found the most references homosexuality. Which is why, three years after “Gay Train,” he followed up with another documentary, this time focusing exclusively on female blues singers with lesbian proclivities.
As it turns out, the blues world was the perfect realm for people who were thought of as “sexual deviants” to inhabit, as it thrived far outside the scope of the dominant white American culture in the early 20th century. In Jazz Age speakeasies, dive bars, and private parties, blue singers had the freedom to explore alternative sexuality, and on a rare occasion, they even expressed it in song.
“In lyrics, they talk about ‘bulldaggers,’ which is they called butch lesbians at that time, or ‘BD women,’ ‘BD’ being short for bulldaggers,” Philipson says. “There were references to being ‘in the life,’ which was understood to mean same-sex activity.”
In 1930’s “The Boy in the Boat,” Ma Rainey’s protégé, Bessie Smith sang, “When you see two women walking hand in hand, just look ‘em over and try to understand: They’ll go to those parties—have the lights down low—only those parties where women can go.” A married woman who kept a female lover on the road with her, Smith is known to have exploded at a girlfriend, “I got twelve women on this show, and I can have one every night if I want it.”
With short cropped hair and a tuxedo, the lesser-known Gladys Bentley commandeered the crowd at Harlem’s Clam House in the 1920s, singing cabaret, tickling the piano keys, and flirting shamelessly with the women in the audience. The only one of these women to openly exploit her lesbian identity, she was known for taking popular songs and giving them lewd lyrics; and she asked the audience to help her improvise naughty lines.
“Harlem’s 133rd Street was called ‘Jungle Alley,’ because there were so many nightclubs on it,” Philipson says, explaining that Harlem had the only Roaring Twenties blues clubs in the country that drew white “tourists” curious about “race music.” “The Clam House was famous because it had Bentley, reveling in her image as a ‘bulldagger.’ Because of her, it became a place where black lesbians and gay men would go to hang out. White sightseers from downtown would check out her show as well.”
Read more: Singing the Lesbian Blues in 1920’s Harlem