Women Rule the Blues — Once Again

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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)