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The Surprising Queer Roots of the Blues

The path of social progress can take loopy turns. In the week since the R&B singer Frank Ocean announced the not-such-big-news that his first love was a man, influential figures in contemporary black music have portrayed the not-so-big event as a major test of character in the world of hip-hop and R&B. Beyonce wrote a plea for tolerance, in verse, and issued it in the form of a message scrawled over a photo of Ocean: “Be fearless, be honest, be generous, be brave…” Russell Simmons, the hip-hop mogul and yogi, posted a letter of support for Ocean on the Global Grind, the website Simmons owns. “Today is a big day for hip-hop. It is a day that will define who we really are. How compassionate will we be? How loving can we be? How inclusive are we?” And Nelson George, the critic and novelist, said in an interview with The New York Times, “It’s going to be a kind of litmus test.”

The proposition underlying these responses to Ocean’s coming out is a damning one, a view of R&B and hip-hop as homophobic, and it’s not based on nothing. R&B, a music that’s for and about romantic seduction, tends in its lyrics to trade in the corny formulas of hetero sex roles, though the groove and the atmosphere of the music carry far more weight than the words, which, one assumes, the listeners are too busy at romance to listen to. Hip-hop, wrapped up as it is in tropes of male prowess, conquest, domination, and acquisition, has never been particularly gay-friendly. Yet, the music that both R&B and hip-hop grew from, the blues of the early 20th century, was far from homophobic. In fact, it’s probably accurate to say that the breakthrough blues of the 1920s, the material that established the blues in the public consciousness, was the gayest music in America.

A good 15 years before Robert Johnson did his first recording, the blues were well established by a group of early innovators: women such as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Ida Cox, and Sippie Wallace, among many others. Through both the content of their music and the content of their public images and performance styles, they presented radically potent messages of sexual disconformity and womanly independence of mind and body. Their music was widely popular—Mamie Smith’s record of “Crazy Blues” sold more than 100,000 copies to white and black listeners in 1920, when Robert Johnson was probably four years old—and it was profoundly, but entertainingly transgressive. In a broad sense, the “blues queens” and their work embodied big, bad challenges to the Victrola-era image of women as pretty little objects of male desire. Further, the music was sometimes an outlet for subtle (and occasionally not so subtle) expressions of female same-sex desire.

As Bessie Smith, the “Empress of the Blues,” sang in “Empty Bed Blues”:

I want a deep-sea diving woman
That got a stroke that can’t go wrong
I want a deep-sea diving woman
That got a stroke that can’t go wrong
Yeah, touch that bottom, gal
Hold it all night long

Lucille Bogan, who sang as Bessie Jackson, was blunter still in signature songs such as “Women Won’t Need No Men” and “B.D. Woman’s Blues,” the “B.D.” of which stood for a slang term for gay women:

B.D. women, you sure can’t understand
B.D. women, you sure can’t understand
They got a head like a sweet angel
And they walk just like a natural man.

In the absence of film footage of performances of this material, I’m sharing a few clips of three of the woman—Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, and Sippie Wallace—who pioneered a radical sexuality in blues, generations before Frank Ocean: