Women Rule the Blues — Once Again

Where a decade ago, popular blues-playing women were hard to come by, today, there is no shortage of vastly popular & endlessly talented ladies in the blues. While it took a deplorable seven decades, the timing is perfect.
Joanna Shaw Taylor from the Ruf Blues Caravan at the Notodden Blues Festival.
Joanne Shaw Taylor from the Ruf Blues Caravan at the Notodden Blues Festival. – Photo by Per Ole Hagen

There was once a time when women simply dominated the blues. Ma Rainey, Memphis Minnie, Bessie Smith, and other powerful women vocalists far outpaced their male counterparts — Bessie Smith even became the highest paid African American of her time, a lavish accomplishment in a still deeply segregated country. Ma Rainey was one of the first women to record music, and sang extensively through minstrel shows and in tent gatherings — early festivals. She became a wildly popular singer, and with Tommy Dorsey and his band, she performed for both black and white audiences, despite the harsh realities of the era’s segregation. Rainey enjoyed a long and successful career up until her passing from a heart attack at 53. Bessie Smith was the on the pinnacle of blues fame during the height of it’s popularity, being one of the most sought after performers for “race records”, singing in theaters and tent shows, performing on Broadway and even in an early movie — St. Louis Blues, named after W.C. Handy’s original number. She earned enough at the time to ride in her own private train car, and lived what could be described as an early rockstar lifestyle. Tragically, she passed away at 43 years old following a disastrous car accident on Highway 61, outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi. 10,000 mourners reportedly came to pay their respects at her visitation.

It could be argued that the heyday of women dominating the blues passed in the thirties. The public’s changing musical tastes, the death of Ma Rainey and the tragic accident that killed Bessie Smith all helped to contribute to a void of blues women. Notable exceptions such as Big Mama Thornton, Rory Block, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe fell too few and too far between. Powerful blueswomen like Koko Taylor, the undisputed Queen of the Blues, kept ladies’ presence in the music strong and bright for many years. Koko’s distinctly brilliant legacy will continue for decades to come, and simply put, there have been too few women such as Koko taking top billings on main stages in the past seven decades. It took over seventy long, inexcusable years, but women have once again risen to take the blues world by storm, and in the process, many are making unprecedented strides in bringing the blues to the public and the mainstream’s ears. Blues as a genre seems to be deep into experiencing a graceful resurgence of dominance by women.

Where a decade ago, popular blues-playing women were hard to come by, today, there is no shortage of vastly popular and endlessly talented women in the blues. Strong blueswomen like Ana Popovic, Shemika Copeland, and Grammy winner Susan Tedeschi have been storming the musical fronts, receiving accolades from all directions, and are surely destined to be crossover successes — if they aren’t already. They’re not the only in-demand ladies of the blues, however. Blues women dominate a wide array of styles in the many faces of blues music, and continue to take top billings at festivals across the world. Stunning blues vocalist and Alligator Records artist Shemika Copeland has gained widespread notoriety, including from the New York Times, CNN, and other major news outlets, for her larger-than-life stage presence and her truly unique sound. As one of the front-runners of contemporary blues, she’s opened for the Rolling Stones and shared stages with Buddy Guy, B.B. King, John Mayer, and more as she carries the bright torch of the blues into the twenty-first century while forging a unique and unmistakable sound. Janiva Magness and Cee Cee James are both powerhouse vocalists who’s stars continue to rise. Eden Brent’s unique style of piano boogie and smokey voice have made her an extremely successful and in-demand blues piano player from Mississippi. She has won three Blues Music Awards, as well as the prestigious Pinetop Perkins Piano Player of the Year Award. Grammy-nominated Ruthie Foster’s incredibly powerful vocals have landed her top billings and deserved praise, including a BMA award for Female Artist of the Year in Contemporary Blues. Blues Music Award winner Marcia Ball also stands tall upon strong piano prowess. Playing a distinctively swampy, New Orleans style blues piano, she has received numerous accolades for her many talents, including glowing reviews from mainstream publications such as USA Today, the Austin Chronicle and the Boston Herald. These wonderfully talented ladies of the blues are again ushering in an exciting era of blues music. With grand stage presences, a number of talents, from screaming guitar to volcanic vocals, and exciting music that ranges from deeply soulful to hard rocking, it’s no wonder women continue to command top billings in festivals, clubs, theaters, and on charts.

These powerful women are not alone in the blues world, however. Refreshingly, a number of young and up-and-coming women are also gaining acclaim, surely helping to reinforce the resurgence of women’s popularity. UK native Joanne Shaw Taylor is drawing large crowds with her energetic act and strong, guitar-driven style of blues. Recently, she was featured on the cover of Blues Revue Magazine. Soulful bassist Danielle Schnebelen and her two brothers make up the Trampled Under Foot band, 2008 International Blues Challenge winners. Newcomer and Kansas City native Samantha Fish, despite only recently emerging from her hometown, is pleasing crowds across the country with her contemporary Missouri Blues style of guitar prowess in the vein of Mike Zito and others. At the American Blues Scene, we receive no shortage of excellent review albums from up-and-coming blues women each week, working hard and sounding exciting.

While the widespread re-emergence of popular women in the blues has taken a deplorable seven decades, the timing could not be better. Women such as Bessie Smith carried music and the blues into the minds and hearts of popular culture years ago, and presents the contemporary music world with a solid blueprint for good things, both coming and already arrived. For far more than a decade, the inexplicable question, “Is the blues dying,” or it’s slightly more sugar-coated variant, “will the blues be popular again” has continued to float in the dredges of blues culture. Many blues fans have held out hope that the question would be answered simply through song. That song, as it turns out, is being played and sang by some of the most talented women to grace stages in any genre. It is mutually beneficial — both the blues and the contemporary music scene desperately needed strong women to counter the oversexualized, overdubbed faux trends of pop. What better place to find strong women than from the blues?

While women in blues have always been a strong force, these days, women can be found in greater numbers than ever, carrying torches in all walks of blues, from the soul stew sounds of Susan to the eye-upon-tradition style of Rory and the rock-blues dominance of Ana, there is no shortage of blueswomen to keep tradition, explore daring avenues, and, ultimately bring great music to adoring fans, at a time when it was needed the most.

(This article was last edited 10-17-11)


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22 thoughts on “Women Rule the Blues — Once Again”

  1. What an honor to be mentioned in this article. Bless you for ‘feeling’ what we Women are all working to bring each in our own ways.. honest, deep, real life through what we all know in the deepest part of our souls once we have lived a bit of life and life has honed our souls a bit… The Blues. God Bless the Blues….for how would we express ourselves without it? For me.. being canned or boxed up tight in a little pop music package would not work.. The freedom that comes with expression through Blues music is unexplainable.. it’s deep deep feel and something that must be given.

    I’m extremely honored to be mentioned here with all of these hard working Blues WOMEN… Thank you American Blues Scene.

  2. It makes me proud as Janiva’s cousin and a friend to Eden and Marcia…to see articles like this one.. I feel honored to know these women and excited that their hard work is paying off.

  3. An article that ignores the contribution of the many great African-American women to today’s blues scene. (women who truly understand the racial, cultural and social history of The Blues).

  4. Whaaat? Aren’t there any Black blues women to write a few words about?
    Deitra Farr, Diunna Greenleaf, Denise LaSalle, Deborah Coleman, Etta James, Shemekia Coleman, E.C. Scott, Babara Lynn, Nora Jean Bruso, Irma Thomas, ………………… The list goes on and on.

  5. I came across this post as I was listening to some amazing vintage Bonnie Raitt. I grew up on Bonnie in the 70’s, thanks to my dad. Her early roots-infused albums were a huge part of the soundtrack of my childhood. Listening to her masterful slide guitar work and powerful, soulful voice, it is no wonder why she remains one of the most successful women in the industry. What a privilege to have grown-up listening to Bonnie and her contemporaries such as those listed in this article. Rock on, ladies!

  6. When I went to Chicago, in the nineties and the noughties most of the blues women I saw were black and there were plenty of them. Matt Marshall seems to live on a different part of the planet.
    Perhaps he meant to say that in the last decade there has been a surge of white female rock guitarists.
    By the way, it’s Joanne Shaw Taylor, not Joanna.
    Fran Leslie
    Editor: Blues In Britain magazine.

  7. Although you start this story acknowledging the important legacy of African American blues women, you completely ignore their contemporary heirs. I can’t believe that you don’t even mention Koko Taylor, Queen of The Blues now and always, but you seem to be oblivious to an array of key African American blues women– Shemekia Taylor, Zora Young, Sharon Lewis, Dietra Farr, Grana’Louise, Nellie “Tiger” Travis just to name a few. Do you really think that Bessie and Ma fought through all of the travails of American racism and sexism only to have the blues snatched away by white women? That may be the way some may want it but that is not the reality and I’m personally offended that you have given the impression that it’s only white women that are carrying the blues woman torch.

  8. I think the author of this article has subconsciously disclosed his own predilection for a certain blues-singer demographic. I know, I know, I’ve seen the t-shirts: “no black, no white…just blues!”. Wrong. Also Mr. Marshall’s sense of history is questionable at best. How can one talk about blues women in history and make no mention of Koko Taylor? Etta James? Denise Lasalle? Or their predecessor Big Maybelle? But the most outrageous part of this article is the TOTAL ignoring of contemporary African American women blues practitioners, as if they are irrelevant. Like who?
    Betty Lavette, Sugar Pie Desanto, Ruthie Foster, Deitra Farr, Nellie “Tiger” Travis, Debra Coleman, Shemekia Copeland, Carla Thomas, Big Time Sarah, Zora Young, Sharon Lewis, Sharrie Williams, Sista Monica, Diunna Greenleaf, Grana Louise, Thornetta Davis, Peaches Staton, Shirley Johnson, Lavelle White and many more. He writes”…to counter the oversexualized trends of pop.” Dude, have you seen the new “Ana” album cover? Is it a coincidence that for the most part the most successful “blues women” are thin, pretty white women? I do not question their talent or their sincerity but I do question the machine that promotes them. And Matt you are now officially one of their tools.

  9. Amazing how you missed the “real” Blues women! Just another slap in the face to the Black singers, especially the females! You’ve got a lot of nerve! YOU need some education if you think these white women are the “saviours” of the Blues! Really? HA!

  10. “It took over seventy long, inexcusable years, but women have once again risen to take the blues world by storm, …Where a decade ago, popular blues-playing women were hard to come by, today, there is no shortage of vastly popular and endlessly talented women in the blues.”

    What about Etta James, Koko Taylor, Toshi Reagon, Shakura S’aida, Odetta Holmes, Sugar Pie De Santo (who is still kicking it at age 76)…so many blueswomen were omitted in this article. Does winning an award make one blues “artist” (no offense to the women mentioned in the article). You might want to ask the blueswomen you mentioned who their influences are (chances are some of them are still around), it might shed another light to your article (imho).


  11. I posted a comment directly on the link for this news article. Yesterday it was awaiting approval, today it has disappeared.

    Censorship of criticism?

    My comment was expressing dismay that contemporary African American women had been excluded from the list of current blues stars – very talented women with an understanding of “the roots of the blues”. Why?

    I am a human, not a robot so why has my comment not been approved?

  12. I for one dig the article! I know where Matt is going & it’s not to show disrespect. He is looking at the artists that may be new to the field from his perspective. There are many discovering Blues just from a WEB / INTERNET perspective only. I for one have found many a blues singer just from the net & not seen them live. Some artists have evolved into the blues. While others were there all along. Any Artist should be garning press at all stages of their career, if no press then they are considered not current in this INTERNET age. Ok for example through YouTube I found “Eliza Neals” an ethnic woman who is making waves in the blues. Now Mr. & Mrs. out there please review the web presence of each of these ladies & determine if their reach can “crossover” to the new fans that will almost never if ever see them perform live.

  13. I heard about the comments made against this article, I actually have one Question…. Did any of you folks writing negative comments actually Read the Whole article? I’m amazed that there are folks who are saying that there is Not one word was said about Koko Taylor, when She is mentioned right in the second paragraph! Now admitly there is not much said about the works and the contributions of the many great African-American women to today’s blues scene, but that isn’t the point of this article. The writer of this is trying to point out, about how men (White and Black) artists are more “popular” (if that’s the right word) in the Blues world then Women (Black and White). and what’s with all the Name calling? There’s even one from Fran Leslie (Editor: Blues In Britain Magazine, who BTW is a woman) asking if Matt is from different part of the planet? If you don’t agree with me, let me ask you, Think about (or look up on the internet) the lineup at the Major Bluesfest in the last few months. How many Woman Artists where performing? How many Men Artists? Now look over the last issue of your fave Blues Magazine, and see the ratio of Men Artists Covered, vs, Women Artists? To show an example, I used Fran Leslie’s Magazine, Blues In Britain, to see what happens. On the home page, there are 8 photos of Blues Artists, only one is of a Female Artist (BTW That article wasn’t about a Female artist, it was about the British Blues Awards Winners of 2011) I dug alittle deeper, on the interview page there are 8 interviews, only 2 where of Female Artists, and one of those was about Fran’s Radio Show. (BTW None of those Photos or interviews was of a Female Black Artist). Does this show Racist intent? OF COURSE NOT! It just a Fact that the Blues is more of a “Boy’s Club”. and THAT my friends is what Matt is trying to get across here, It’s NOT a Black or White thing, It’s NOT a RACE CARD Issue, it’s a Male and Female thing. That’s all. BUT I must say that a Open Talk or Chat like this is a GREAT Thing and we must always have this and show everyone’s side of this discussion! Long Live The Blues!

  14. Where is Teeny Tucker?
    2009 Blues Blast “Female Artist of the Year” nominee
    2010 “Monterey Artist of the Year”
    2011 Blues Music Awards Female “Artisti of the Year” nominee
    2011 Blues Blast Female “Artist of the Year” nominee


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