Starting in January 2021, a cataloguing project began with the Paul Oliver Archive of African American Music (POAAAM), housed in Oxford Brookes Library’s Special Collections. Funded by the European Blues Association and an Archives Revealed grant from The National Archives, the cataloguing project will make accessible a unique collection of never-before-seen material.
We have been talking about the project on Twitter (@BrookesSpecColl), and created a thread on the project for LGBTQ+ History Month. LGBTQ+ themes appear with surprising frequency in the blues, and, perhaps even more surprisingly for time, the themes are often depicted in a comparatively sympathetic capacity. Based upon our Twitter thread, this article explores some of the early blues songs that discuss same-sex attraction, and touches upon the lives of those who performed them. I’ve included links to the songs throughout the article, and I highly recommend you give them a listen!
We begin with Ma Rainey, one of the most well-known figures in the blues. Dubbed ‘The Mother of Blues’, Rainey gained extensive notoriety and fame, recording over a hundred records with Paramount, working with artists such as Louis Armstrong, and acting as Bessie Smith’s de facto mentor. She also wrote a large portion of her songs, including the most famous song on this list: ‘Prove It On Me.’ To give you an idea of Ma Rainey’s openness, here is a selection of just some of the lyrics:
It's true I wear a collar and a tie, Makes the wind blow all the while Don't you say I do it, ain't nobody caught me You sure got to prove it on me. Say I do it, ain't nobody caught me Sure got to prove it on me. I went out last night with a crowd of my friends, It must've been women, 'cause I don't like no men. Wear my clothes just like a fan Talk to the gals just like any old man.
While Rainey has other recordings tinged with LGBTQ+ themes, such as ‘Bo-Weavil Blues‘ or ‘Sissy Blues‘, none quite compare to the force of nature that is ‘Prove It On Me.’
As an aside, if you’re interested in learning more about Ma Rainey’s life, the playwright August Wilson wrote a play entitled ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ which was recently made into a Netflix film, starring Viola Davis. The film has just won an Oscar, and I highly recommend watching it if you have the chance. ‘Black Bottom’ here refers to the dance, but the script was based on a song written by Ma Rainey, also called ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’, so the play-on-words is almost certainly intentional. There are a great number of innuendos in the blues, something that will become clear as we continue…
‘Prove It On Me’ was later reworked by another musician, Waymon ‘Sloppy’ Henry, who changed the song to focus on a gay male relationship instead. Sloppy Henry recorded a handful of 78s throughout his career, and was nowhere near the fame of Ma Rainey. Nevertheless, his version of ‘Prove It On Me’ – titled ‘Say I Do It’ – is worth noting here for obvious reasons. Just take a look at some of the lyrics:
Mose and Pete lived on Greenwillow Street in northwest Baltimore Pete 'run with Mose, 'cause he powdered his nose, and even wore ladies hose Two could be seen running hand in hand, in all kinds of weather 'Til the neighbours, they began to signify, 'bout the birds that flock together Mose, he began to sigh, Pete yelled out his reply: 'Say I do it, ain't nobody seen me They sure got to prove it by me Can't identify a man with a cover over his head When a crab is cooked, he's bound to turn red It's true I use a powder puff and has a shiny face I wears a red necktie 'cause I think it suits my taste I know my voice is tenor, I reduce myself with lace And when you see me with the gang you'll find me singing bass They say I do it, ain't nobody seen me They sure got to prove it 'bout me!'
Another song referencing gay male relationships, and one of my favourites on this list, is ‘Sissy’ by Louis Powell. Not much is known about Louis Powell’s life or work beyond the track, which was originally recorded with Vocalion Records and then resurfaced in CD format, salvaged by Document Records many years later. There’s a fabulous opening monologue, of which this is only a short extract:
Oh honey, come on over here now, everything’s gonna be love this morning ‘Cause we gon’ read everybody, we’re all gon’ read each other this morning We’re all a bunch of sissies, and we must stick together.
The song goes on to recount the tale of a beautiful but closeted man, who is ‘so afraid he’ll fall in love.’ How the track has been overlooked for so long is a mystery to me (perhaps the whole thing is just very good satire and I’ve not noticed?). Either way, it’s my personal favourite after ‘Prove It On Me’ and I highly recommend a listen!
Continuing on this theme, George Hannah’s ‘Freakish Man Blues’ and Kokomo Arnold’s ‘Sissy Man Blues’ both recount tales of gay or bisexual men. George Hannah recorded two titles for Vocalion in 1926 and at least eight titles for Paramount in 1929-1930, while Kokomo Arnold, a left-handed slide guitarist, released his first 78 on Victor Records in 1930, before promptly being signed by Decca, for whom he recorded over eighty tracks. ‘Sissy Man Blues’ was not an original work by Arnold, but he was the most commercially successful performer to record the piece. Both songs are written from a first-person perspective, and both are surprisingly sympathetic with their treatment of the subject. As per usual, euphemisms and metaphors abound, but there’s none of the vitriol that one might expect to find in music of the time.
George Hannah also recorded ‘Boy in a boat’, which focuses on lesbian relationships. Sung from a third-person perspective the song is again surprisingly sympathetic, although it should be noted that ‘boy in a boat’ does emphatically not refer to an actual boy in a boat. Once you’ve seen the lyrics, you will win no prizes for guessing the euphemism:
When you see two women walking hand in hand, Just look ‘em over and try to understand. They’ll go to these parties, have their lights down low Only those parties where women can go. You think I’m lying, just ask Tack Anne, Took many a broad from many a man. Face is still wrinkled and breath smells like soap, Still thinking about that boy in a boat.
There are several other songs referencing female same-sex attraction too. While Bessie Smith was Ma Rainey’s protégée, and whilst she had several well-documented same-sex relationships of her own, her lyrics never quite reached the forthrightness of Rainey’s work. ‘Foolish Man Blues’ is perhaps the most opaque mention of female same-sex attraction, but the reference is fleeting and decidedly callous.
Lucille Bogan’s ‘B.D. Woman’s Blues’, on the other hand, is incredibly direct. B.D. here refers to ’bulldagger’ or the more offensive variation thereupon, and you can listen to the song here. While there’s still some debate as to Bogan’s personal stance on the issue, the song’s view is neutral at worst and positive at best. Have a look at some of the lyrics below:
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 B.D. women, they all done learnt their plan B.D. women, they all done learnt their plan They can lay their jive just like a natural man
Bogan was well known for her extremely blunt lyrics, and if you’re feeling brave you can also listen to the song ‘Shave ‘Em Dry’, although it comes with a big NSFW warning. (Look up the lyrics first if you think you’ll be able to get away with it.)
There are many more artists who were known to be same-sex attracted, such as Gladys Bentley or Alberta Hunter, but many of these artists either never recorded or did not sing openly about their experiences. Regardless, we hope this article piqued your interest, and we highly recommend checking out the websites Queer Music Heritage and All About Blues if you’d like to find out more! Follow Special Collections on Twitter for more updates from the cataloguing project, and have a look at some of our available archive material. We recently catalogued over sixty unique digitised interviews with civil rights activists and blues musicians, all recorded in 1960 and free for private use!
Elizabeth Stubbs — Project Cataloguer, Blues Off the Record project