Women in the Blues
inThe Artistson September 6, 2017
By: Christina Cooke
Back when she dealt blackjack and performed the blues in Atlantic City, a music promoter named Peachy Lee assigned Pat Cohen the nickname “Mother Blues” in the advertising one of her shows. The name stuck with her through her long career as a blues singer in New Orleans and, since Hurricane Katrina, North Carolina.
“The idea—‘Mother Blues’—something about it is strong,” said Cohen, who wore a bold black-and-white striped jumpsuit, a short blond wig, and long, bedazzled eyelashes during a recent Saturday night performance at the Bullpen in Durham. “Anything that has ‘mother’ in it is strong, just like anything that has ‘king’ in it is strong.”
Though Cohen embodies the powerful female spirit of her name and is not afraid to speak up when things don’t sit right with her, she often finds herself at a disadvantage in the blues world because of her gender.
“It’s like any other field—it’s a man’s world,” said Cohen, who estimates that only 10 to 20 percent of blues singers are women. “A lot of times we’re not taken seriously, and a lot of times people try to run over us.”
When it comes to blues music, men have long dominated: they’re the ones putting out most albums and filling out most performance lineups. (At the 2017 Chicago Blues Festival, for example, five of the six headliners were men.)
But although women are underrepresented and sometimes discriminated against, they fundamentally shaped the gospel and blues genres—and continue to exert their influence today.
The Tip of the Iceberg
In 1920, vocalist Mamie Smith became the first black singer to record a song, “Crazy Blues,” which paved the way for other female blues musicians to make their mark. In 1923, Bessie Smith signed with Columbia Records, recorded “Downhearted Blues,” and became one of the highest-paid black performers of the time. Other women—including Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Lucille Bogan—also enjoyed success during the early years of the era.
After the upheaval of the Great Depression in the 1920s and ’30s, however, the reign of women in the blues began to dwindle as men took over the recording industry and began to push male performers at the expense of their female counterparts.
“It’s been a fight ever since,” says Tim Duffy, founder of Music Maker Relief Foundation, based in Hillsborough, North Carolina. “There should have been a lot more women in the genre—but instead of pushing women for the next 60 years, they took the money and pushed men.”
Though women may not have enjoyed the public spotlight, their artistry has remained strong in private spheres—in parlors and kitchens and on front porches, Duffy said. Out of reach to record company scouts and blues-focused folklorists, many remained largely unknown to wider audiences, but they did influence their families and communities—and many well-known bluesmen learned from their mothers, Duffy said.
“There are probably as many blues women as blues men; we just know less about them,” he said. “What we do know about blues women and the history of the blues is not even the very tiny tip of the iceberg.”
Raising The Kids Up Right
Growing up in the tiny town of Como on the northern edge of the Mississippi Delta, Ester Mae Wilbourn of the gospel trio The Como Mamas learned to sing from the dark wooden pews of Mt. Mariah C.M.E. Church.
“I used to sit there and listen to those old mothers and old stewards and deacons sing—listening to them and learning the song and singing with the congregation,” said Wilbourn, now 68. “There was a lot of singing around our house. My grandfather music—he played guitar—and my uncle played the fiddle. They would sit out on the porch and make music and sing.”
As an adult, Wilbourn ran her own hair salon, Ester’s Beauty Salon, and later a Head Start kitchen while she raised her three children. Throughout it all, she sang—mostly in her home, at her home church, and at other churches in the area.
“The songs I sing are to encourage everyone to know that you are never alone,” Wilbourn said. “If you’re feeling down, you get a good gospel song, and it lifts your spirit—‘Jesus on the Mainline,’ ‘What Would My Life Be If It Weren’t for Jesus,’ songs that really touch your soul and let you know you’re covered.”
Then in 2005, when she was 55 years old, New York music recordist and producer Michael Reilly visited Como in hopes of finding a recording of Wilbourn’s grandfather Miles Pratcher, a talented string musician that folklorist Alan Lomax had recorded during a trip to Mississippi in 1959.
After hearing Wilbourn and her cousins sing during his visit, Reilly signed them to Daptone Records, a Brooklyn-based music label that represented Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings and other funk, soul, and gospel groups. Since then, they have recorded two albums and sung in Europe, Canada, and throughout the United States.
“Being a Como Mama and singing—this is something I always wanted to do,” Wilbourn said. “This could have come in my 20s or 30s, but God didn’t give it to me then. Everything’s got a season, and this is my season.” Plus, she thought to herself, “‘All my kids are grown—now I can travel.’”
Wilbourn admits that men often have an easier time pursuing a career in the music industry. “Men can reach out a little further than we can—they’re freer than we are, and they don’t have to deal with the same type of things on a day to day basis,” she said. “We have a lot of gifted women, but they’re single women, and that means everything is pretty much on them to make sure everyone else is okay. That can be difficult.”
Family responsibilities tied many would-be blues women to their homes, Duffy said. “Very few ventured out of their communities because they were busy raising families, and it wasn’t their ‘place’ to hit the road and travel,” he said. “If you’re a mother of six, there’s less chance you’ll hop a train to travel the country.”
Instead, many women viewed their music—both blues and gospel which informs it—as a means to better the people around them through sung stories. “They’re doing it to give moral values to their families and communities, and to raise their kids up right,” Duffy said.
“You Ain’t My Daddy”
Blues women singing outside the home for wider audiences, however, sometimes encounter the harsher realities of gender relations. Over her decades in the business, Cohen has frequently had to deal with the sexist behavior of men in positions of power.
“They don’t pay us sometimes what they would pay a man that’s half as good as you,” Cohen said. “Sometimes they don’t want to talk to you—they’d prefer to talk to a guy—and they treat you like you’re stupid,” she said. And sometimes they try to push you around, stripping you of full creative control, she said. “The things they do to a woman they wouldn’t do to a man.”
For much of her time in New Orleans, Cohen performed six nights a week at various clubs on Bourbon Street, doing high-paying corporate events sometimes as well. One time, she worked for a club owner who would make suggestive comments to her like, “‘I’m your daddy. I can make it happen or not happen for you.’” “‘You ain’t my daddy,’” she told him, and soon after, came into work and was told she’d been replaced.
“I try not to hold negative feelings,” she said. “There are a lot of things I learned during Katrina. I learned if you hold onto negative thoughts and negative feelings, you draw more of that negative energy toward you. You can’t afford to keep that in your life.”
Lena Mae Perry, the 78-year-old powerhouse of the North Carolina gospel group The Branchettes, does not encounter the same type of blatant discrimination in her work performing at churches and music festivals across North Carolina and the country, she said.
But having worked most of her life as a cook at her own soul food restaurant and several others, she is not trying to make a living with her singing, she pointed out; she’s trying to inspire people to believe and live right. In fact, when she performs in churches, which she does more than 50 times a year, she always makes sure to put money into their offerings.
“If I had to make a living off it, I’d be a mess,” she said, acknowledging that women performers at any level besides the top are paid less than men.
Who Has a Better Perspective on the World?
Despite the marginalization blues women face, they contribute depth, perspective, creativity, and innovation to the genre.
“We feel so deeply, and we go through so much,” Cohen said. “Men don’t feel the same way that we do.” And the blues, Cohen said, is all about feeling. When you’re on stage singing, “You go there personally. You don’t just get up there and sing the song—you feel the song.”
In his work with musicians, Duffy looks for women performers, both because they’re underrepresented and because they have a lot to offer. “They’re smarter than everybody else usually,” Duffy said. “And they actually give life. Nurturing kids and educating kids and keeping it all together—who has a better perspective on the world?”
“We just have to keep our eyes out and see who else is coming down the line, because it doesn’t end,” Duffy said. “If you think it’s a thing of the past, you’re wrong. And the best of them aren’t even trying to make it in the music business; they’re doing it because they love it.”
— Christina Cooke