During Wednesday’s class, we had a brief discussion about vulgar lyrics and the blues queens. As luck would have it, music critic Ann Powers recently posted an essay about the B-word and its place in popular music. A few paragraphs in she writes.
“Bitch,” it turns out, is as central to the popular music lexicon as are “rock” and “roll.” In the blues and the various forms of street and barroom music that immediately inspired them, the word consistently pops up as both an insult and an element in seduction. Jelly Roll Morton employed it; so did the blues queens Ma Rainey and Lucille Bogan. They did so to gain a foothold in the dangerous spaces where the music that might later become mainstream was made: the concert saloons and bawdy houses where women’s bodies were often commodities. Though musicians of both genders tapped its power, from the beginning, “bitch” was slung around as a way of asserting control in a world where a male perspective rules.
It also factored heavily into trash-talk tradition that music scholar Elijah Wald examines in his book The Dozens: The History of Rap’s Mama. The street game that gave birth to rap is rooted in the art of the insult, and none proved more potent than those aimed at absent mothers defended by chest-puffing sons. In the 1920s, Wald writes, a friendly coworker in a restaurant explained the dozens for the writer Frank Marshall Davis: “When you call a man a son of a bitch, you call his mother a dog. In the dozens, you jus’ elaborate an’ expand it more.”
A decade or so later, Morton told the folklorist Alan Lomax that he sang “smutty” songs to minimize the “femininity stamp” that stuck on pianists in New Orleans, where many women played that instrument. The song he then shared referred to a female conquest as a “bitch” five times in two verses. Whether the aggression the term signaled embodied desire or scorn, saying “bitch” was a way of getting hard.
In these early cases, using music to refer to someone with such vulgarity was a way of fitting in to the segments of society where the music was most often performed. Further, it was a way of asserting control. As we continue with our exploration of the early contexts and performances of jazz and blues, we are likely to keep encountering smut. I look forward to hearing everyone’s responses to the rich world of music-making in the teens and ’20s.