cover image Blues Legacies & Black Feminism

Blues Legacies & Black Feminism

Harold Davis, Angela Yvonne Davis. Pantheon Books, $27.5 (448pp) ISBN 978-0-679-45005-4

In her provocative book, Davis, the well-known sixties radical, professor and author (Women, Culture, and Politics; Women, Race, and Class) finds, in the work of three pivotal artists of the blues and jazz era, ""rich terrain for examining a historical feminist consciousness that reflected the lives of working-class black communities."" Through her close readings of their lyrics, which she transcribed (and presents as the book's second half), Davis explores the meanings behind the performances of Gertrude ""Ma"" Rainey and Bessie Smith. Toppling the prevailing image of the tragic blues woman, she finds that the songs don't portray the desolate and deserted woman; rather, ""the most frequent stance assumed by the women in these songs is independence and assertiveness--indeed defiance--bordering on and sometimes erupting into violence."" She also offers ample evidence to dispute claims that women's blues were personal, not political, arguing that their songs created consciousness by naming the issues. Her readings of Billie Holiday's lyrics are less successful, perhaps because it is difficult to capture in words Holiday's subversive renderings of popular love songs. Still, Davis's book should be read by both scholars and music aficionados for its expressive reading of these singers' complex works. 8 pages of b&w photos. (Feb.)