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