Fall 2002 Volume XXXII, No. 1
Alan Lomax: Citizen Activist
by Ron Cohen
Afro-Asian Crosscurrents in Contemporary Hip Hop
by Ellie M. Hisama
Musical Topics in Hale Smith's Evocation
by Horace J. Maxile, Jr.
Eileen Jackson Southern: A Tribute and a Mandate
by Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr.
ReviewsCountry and Gospel Notes
by Charles Wolfe
Gendering Jazz Narratives
by Susan C. Cook
Rorem on Everything
by Eleonora M. Beck
Gendering Jazz Narratives
by Susan C. CookThree recent books present underexplored and unexpected vantage points from which to re-encounter the jazz terrain, a landscape that all too often has been reproduced as a picture perfect postcard suitable for the jazz tourist: Angela Y. Davis’s Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (Vintage, 1998; $15); David Margolick’s Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights (Running Press, 2000; $12); and Sherrie Tucker’s Swing Shift: “All-Girl” Bands of the 1940s (Duke University Press, 2000; $19). The three books play off each other in interesting ways. Billie Holiday’s masterpiece “Strange Fruit” serves as the point of departure for David Margolick’s musing while her life and career are central to Angela Y. Davis’s interpretation of black feminism. Holiday’s public embodiment of black glamour as well as her model of black female professionalism informs the public personas and activities of Tucker’s “all-girl” bands. Margolick and Tucker both share journalist credentials, while Tucker’s acknowledged graduate study with Davis is apparent in their shared commitment to the centrality of race and gender to jazz scholarship.
Angela Y. Davis’s Blues Legacies and Black Feminism is the oldest of the three books and calls attention to its refreshing point of view—black feminism—in its title. Davis spends much of the opening three chapters exploring the contextual realities of race and gender and what bringing them together means. Her writing in these early chapters can be thought-provoking: “Sexuality thus was one of the most tangible domains in which emancipation was acted upon and through which its meanings were expressed. Sovereignty in sexual matters marked an important divide between life during slavery and life after emancipation.” After laying out her claims for taking seriously the socially-shaping roles of black women in popular culture, Davis proceeds to explore the public careers of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday, presenting a kind of triumvirate of black feminist womanhood centered in the personal lives and working-class communities of these performers. Especially illuminating are Davis’s explorations of the politics and power of post-slavery black sexuality, as suggested in the above quotation, and its problematic nature for Americans both black and white.
While there is much to celebrate about this work, the high promise of the opening chapters does not carry through, and the book quite literally fades away with a full 158 pages of transcribed lyrics. This transparent reliance on lyrics, admittedly many of which have not been transcribed, is problematic for many reasons, not the least of which is that it suggests that the celebrated musicking of these women can be reduced to lyrics shorn of their aurality. Worse, it suggests that these women somehow are their texts, that their “real” autobiographical stories are the ones they shared in public, even when it is unclear what control they had over their material. This is another version of the “just singing their lives” trope that so often undercuts the agency of female performers. Overall Davis’s analysis needs to be more nuanced in thinking through and challenging the time-worn dualities that have marked the “bad boy/victim girl” discourses of blues and jazz while ignoring race and gender politics.
Billie Holiday and her performance of “Strange Fruit,” much beloved by Davis, acts as the frame for David Margolick’s slim text. Expanded from an essay that first appeared in Vanity Fair, Margolick attempts a kind of thick description/reception history of Abel Meeropol’s song and its multiple performances by Holiday. While drawing on recent jazz scholarship—he quotes from Davis’s Blues Legacies, although it’s unclear given other comments whether he’s actually read her or not—Margolick probes what “Strange Fruit” and its atypical anti-lynching text meant to Holiday and to her listeners over the years. I can well imagine that readers of Vanity Fair aren’t keen on footnotes. However, his choice to move to a book venue, with a forward by Hilton Als and other claims to credibility, demands review of his research methodology. Margolick quotes from performers who remember a Holiday performance, for example, but he doesn’t indicate whether he did the interview or took it from another source. To cite another instance, in Margolick’s discussion of the radio censorship of “Strange Fruit,” he mentions a photograph of a recording marked “not for airplay,” but fails to attribute the picture to the Ladyslipper Music Catalogue, a source I steered him to. This sort of inadequate sourcing is pervasive throughout the work, calling into question the quality of the information and validity of Maragolick’s interpretations. Without bibliography or notes, how do we know where and how he came to his material? Of more concern, what other insights and information has he appropriated from the work of others without the expected acknowledgment?
The star here is Sherrie Tucker, and it would be hard to over-praise Swing Shift: “All-Girl” Bands of the 1940s for the way it opens up unexpected terrain and asks fresh new questions. Tucker takes her readers on a literal journey as we join the busloads of female musicians, from the The Prairie View Co-eds to the Sharon Rogers All-Girl Band, who attempted to make the daunting trip from girl musician to professional wage earner during the high times of the 1940s. Meticulously researched and sourced, cogently argued, and generally written with an ear and eye for the general public, it is without a doubt one of the best books on jazz or American music to come out in the last five years. Tucker relies on oral histories, largely without access to recordings, to construct her jazz narrative, as the women at the center of her study rarely attained access to this racially and gender shaped technology of historical legitimacy. And yet her study invests the musicking of these often inaudible performers with more significance and subjects it to more critical scrutiny than does Davis’s with her pages of lyrics as she makes her case for adding these women and their experiences to our accepted history of jazz.
After an opening chapter dealing head-on with the erasure of women from the dominant studies of jazz and the role of women workers and the wartime “swing shift,” Tucker begins her case studies with Phil Spitalny and His Hour of Charm Orchestra. After cheering her brilliant critique of jazz scholarship, I wondered about the choice of Phil Spitalny and his ensemble. Here was a group I’d long heard about, but had never given much thought to, content to accept the dominant view that these musicians were irrelevant. Tucker’s analysis brought me up short and forced me to face my own questionable presumptions about the musical activities of Spitalny’s talented musicians, who undertook their work with the utmost seriousness of purpose. In her refusal to take anything for granted, especially the high-stakes of leisure time activities and entertainment, Tucker repeatedly immerses the reader in the multiple contradictions of “girl” musicians and working women, of sounding “black” and looking “white,” of maintaining femininity and demanding equity, of going on the road and staying home, and of what wartime work meant for women and for men. This is a crucial book for anyone interested in the complicated workings of American popular musical life. No one should miss this bus ride.
—University of Wisconsin at Madison