Published on 01 Sep 2013 | over 3 years ago
Because she succeeded in the more refined European cabaret scene, blues singer and songwriter Alberta Hunter concealed and refused to speak about her lesbianism, according to Bonnie Zimmerman's encyclopedia 'Lesbian Histories and Cultures. Hunter's biographer Frank C. Taylor wrote that the vocalist, who also lived with her long-term girlfriend, Lottie Tyler, would cringe every time a lesbian performer, like her friend Ethel Waters, would have a lover's spat in public.
While the newfound freedom of living large on the road may have inspired some of the racier lyrics Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith sang, these songs celebrating booze and lust may also have roots in 'coon songs from 19th-century minstrel shows. At these popular Victorian touring shows, white actors in blackface played racist caricatures of African Americans as simple, lazy buffoons with insatiable appetites for food, alcohol, and sex.
In the 1840s, William Henry Lane and Thomas Dilward became the first black actors to play minstrels. By the late 1800s, all-black minstrel troupes were taking off, and while they were upholding stereotypes, they often worked to slyly subvert the racist jokes and make subtle jabs at white supremacy. (In his 1974 book 'Blacking Up, Robert Toll describes one jubilee from a black minstrel show that depicts heaven as a place 'where de white folks must let the darkeys be, where they wouldn't be 'bought and sold.) When vaudeville variety shows supplanted minstrel shows, black performers were still expected to play minstrel-type characters.
Ma Rainey, who was bisexual, got her stage name when she married vaudeville performer Pa Rainey. (Via NotesOnTheRoad.com)
Clearly, these lesbian-leaning blues singers were forging their own paths in a shifting cultural landscape. 'No time to marry, no time to settle down, Bessie Smith sang on 1926 ²s 'Young Woman's Blues. 'I'm a young woman, and I ain't done runnin' around.