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am 10. Dezember 1999
As I love music of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith & Billie Holiday,this book didnt open new ground for me at all.The author firmly concetrates only on interpretations of the song lyrics and I still dont know more about singers than I didnt know before.I agree with the reader who said that Billie holiday maybe wasnt the best choice for symbol of black feminism - Dinah Washington with her fierce temper was much closer to blues foremothers in spirit, than sado-masochistic Billie.This is the first time ever that I found all the lyrics from Ma Rainey & Bessie Smith songs at one place, so that is maybe the only brilliant thing about the book - everything else seems half-finished to me.
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am 12. Februar 2000
I am a resident of Columbus, Georgia, the birthplace and hometown where Ma' Rainey was raised and died. It is from this premise that I will address this publication, especially since Ma' has surviving relatives. The data compiled on Ma' Rainey was not validated nor reviewed by her family prior to publication. If all of the researchers that have written about Ma', and those that are proposing to write about Ma' would come to Columbus, Georgia, they would have direct access to many primary sources on the subject.
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am 28. März 2000
If you expect to read a traditional biography you may be dissappointed. The lives of the blues women and their political messages behind their songs are discussed in one another's light. This works very well as blues is a folk music which tells many things about the black experience and most singers are song writers themselves. The section about Billie Holiday and her song Strange Fruit is one of the rare approaches to Lady Day as an artist who gave a very important political messages about racism. In other biographies Billie Holiday is always portrayed as a victim rather than a person who had an important political message. I believe this very style of her portrayal could be discussed in a feminist context and that's what Angela Davies did in this book with her vast knowledge and experience in black politics and gender issues. Some people criticize the book for being overtly political. However, I see no other way of analyzing the blues without its political context. The transcriptions of the songs also gives a documentary value to this book. It has been a great reference for my research in this field. I wish I can get in touch with Angela Davies one day and discuss her about the research she has done while preparing this book.
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am 6. März 2000
Davis' title explains her project in clear terms at the outset. She is not engaged in a critique of modern women in popular music (as one reviewer anticipated). Nor is she profiling these women in biography format. Therefore, she does not need the permission of Rainey's relatives for this project. Her goal is to uncover the pre-feminist sentiments expressed in these women's music. In that regard, she needs only the barest biographical information (that women performers were not rooted to hearth and home, traveled, worked, and had marquee positions). Assuming this general information to be true of all these women, Davis then concentrates her primary energy on the legacy that blues lyrics leave for Black Feminism. Part of that legacy is found in the advice on romance, religion, and race that these women's songs shared (or share now) with black female listeners. I hope this gives readers an accurate idea of what to expect from this worthwhile book and encourages disappointed readers to re-encounter the book on its own terms.
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am 25. Juli 2000
I have to agree with the reviewer from Turkey who wrote positively about Davis' "Strange Fruit" chapter in Blues Legacies. I recently wrote a term paper on the song Strange Fruit in which I referred to both David Margolick's recent release about Strange Fruit and Davis' Blues Legacies. I was very impressed with Davis' depiction of Holiday as an individual and an entertainer. It seemed that she brought a more well-rounded and objective perspective on the singer into the world of Billie Holiday biographies. Her take on the song and on Holiday's connection to it are, shall we say, refreshing, in that it takes a novel approach to the singer -- one that attempts to remain impartial to the popular image of Holiday. This book is also an excellent reference for those studying feminism, jazz, Afro-Americana and/or the lives of the three women (Rainey, Holiday and Smith) showcased in Davis' Blues Legacies.
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am 31. Dezember 1998
Somewhere in "Blues Legacies," Angela Davis the Activist and Angela Davis the Scholar collided leaving both worse for wear. This is a powerfully stated, well-intentioned study that loses focus and credibility by screaming, rather than supporting its ideology. Davis argues that three foremothers of American blues music, Ma' Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday, offered up a version of black, working-class feminism through their songs that emphasized self-suffiency, personal pride, and admitting one's shortcomings. These value, the author asserts, sprouted into the feminist conciousness of the 1960's, largely coded as white and middle class. Davis thorough knowledge of black musical criticism and exhaustive study of the three artist's lyrics makes this central assertion a convincing one. From here, I waited for her to place it in a historical context and ask some tough questions about the role of women in popular music which would tie the study firmly to contemporary discourse. It never happened. Davis hammers this feminist assertion into submission for nearly 200 pages, never letting it mature beyond simple declaration. The role of black feminism in the 20th century is under-explored and long overdue. Yet the author never grants it the weight it deserves. How did this black feminism figure into the process of composition since Rainey, Smith and Holiday wrote very few of their songs? How did these Artists influence their children from the Shirelles to Tina Turner to Salt n' Pepa? The potential for answering these important question is all over "Blues Legacies" yet Angela Davis keeps getting in her own way. A scholar shouldn't have to choose between their message and their scholarship but this case, a frustering collision might have been avoided.
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am 29. Dezember 1998
Many of the reviewers have missed the most useful point of Davis's book. When she talks about "proto-feminist consciousness" she means that the lives and music of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith (her arguments about Holiday are not quite as convincing) paved the way for modern feminism. As working-class black women, these two singers were utterly alienated from the "hearth and home" that defined the "official version" of (white) woman's identity. Yet were they not still women? They broke all of the rules at the intersection of domesticity and Jim Crow: They worked outside the home, they traveled extensively, they chose their lovers, they were artists, and they were band-leaders. None of these positions fit neatly within the prevailing attitudes about woman's place. So, before the 1970s feminist movements explored these same topics (sexuality, gender roles, working women), Rainey and Smith had lived and sung about it.
Whereas white feminists find white women's literature a valuable place to search for roots of feminism, Davis and other scholars of black American culture (in which the struggle for literacy has still not ben won) have found music to be a rich source of personal and communal histories and social commentary. So music is where she searches to find articulations of women who already lived identities in conflict with the prevailing notions of femininity. No one need fear Davis's use of the term feminist or her use of race and class to analyze these women's music. Race, class, and gender undoubtedly determined the possibilities for these women's lives.
Davis draws upon existing definitions of the blues and also expands the definition to include the "proto-feminist consciousness" of black women. Davis's discussion of the blues idiom is comprehensive. Each blues motif is carefully examined for the cultural work it does when sung by men and by women. Traveling and choosing lovers are, to Davis, reflective of the new mobility and autonomy blacks experienced from Reconstruction on. Davis also outlines the blues' sometimes individualistic emphasis with the communal performance of spirituals. When Davis describes the blues aesthetic of Rainey and Smith, she shows their convergence with and divergence from that of black male blues singers. With this strategy, she makes it impossible to talk about the blues again without including the particular way that black women participate(d) in the blues.
The only part of the book that was not convincing was her section on Billie Holiday. Although I believe that Holiday was able to work against the often demeaning lyrics she promoted for Tin Pan Alley hacks, I find it harder to imagine Davis's point of view of Holiday's music as proto-feminist. In book format, one does not have Holiday's recordings handy to compare Davis's interpretations of her pronunciation and shading with Holiday's recorded voice. With Smith and Rainey, however, the lyrics are closely associated with the message, and Davis is better able to prove her claim. I also have some issues with Holiday (evaluated by her music) as proto-feminist blues woman. The few 12-bar blues she sang certainly fall in the tradition of Rainey and Smith. "Fine and Mellow" describes a great lover whom she'll leave nonetheless if he doesn't treat her right. "Billie's Blues" ends with the assertion that "[I'm] everything a good man needs!" However, I think that, although Holiday is to Northern jazz what Rainey and Smith were to the migration-born blues, Dinah Washington might have made a better musical comparison with Rainey and Smith. A few claims in the Holiday section prevent this otherwise flawless book from gaining five stars.
A quick mention of Davis's compilation of the previously unwritten lyrics to Rainey's and Smith's recordings: Her undertaking will provide very useful to future singers and jazz or blues critics. It is difficult to hear the lyrics on these early recordings, thus she makes a couple of mistakes. I do take issue with her spelling; she writes what Rainey and Smith sang in Black English/Ebonics in Standard English. She sometimes ruins the original sense AND sound of the lyrics when she translates them into academically acceptable language. Still, an extremely important undertaking, despite the times she misheard and miswrote the lyrics. (She admits the possibility of her mishearing the songs in her preface.) Again, Davis's analysis of Rainey and Smith must alter the way we think about the culutral significance of blues (and its outgrowth, jazz).
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am 14. September 1999
I definitely agree with "mpgrier" who writes that Davis' book is almost flawless in its discussion of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. If Davis had chosen to write about these two artists only, the book would have been an instant classic and a triumphant tribute to the artistic and social impact of these remarkable women on American culture.
The fact that all the lyrics are included is all the more reason to recommend this book. Being a white man from Norway, I may not be the best judge of language and style in the transcriptions of these lyrics, but they remain a powerful read, and they become an even stronger listening experience.
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