On this week’s episode, we discussed the black lesbian and gay subculture in the Harlem Renaissance throughout the 1920s and 1930s in New York. From growing up in poverty to traveling minstrel stars and eventually into nationally renowned recording artists, blues legends like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Gladys Bentley infused their music with sexuality and reality, hinting at the queer atmosphere of Harlem nightlife that included wild parties, flowing booze, and romps on the road. Many of them were known for their explicit or otherwise 'scandalous' lyrics that were full of innuendo and subtle (or not so subtle!) allusions to queer life and love. Plus, now we have a new lady to add to our Anne Bonny/Lizzie Borden ship: Bessie Smith!
Some Looks at our Queermos
Gertrude "Ma" Rainey
Ethel Waters and Ethel Williams
Lucille Bogan/Bessie Jackson
Listen to the Dirty and/or Queer Harlem Renaissance Blues
Ma Rainey's "Prove it On Me Blues"
Ma Rainey's "Sissy Blues"
Bessie Smith's "Empty Bed Blues"
Bessie Smith's "Foolish Man Blues"
Gladys Bentley's "Worried Blues"
Lucille Bogan's "BD Woman's Blues"
Lucille Bogan's "Shave 'Em Dry"
Lucille Bogan's "Groceries on the Shelf"
Check out these mini documentaries about Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, courtesy of Biography.com for black history month.
And also check out the trailer for HBO's Bessie, available to stream via an HBO subscription.
If you want to learn more about these folks, as well as the history of queerness in the Harlem Renaissance, check out our full list of sources and further reading below!
- Queers in Jazz History: Gladys Bentley
- ADVENTURES IN FEMINISTORY: THE HISTORY OF HARLEM'S 1920S LESBIAN BLUES SINGERS
- Women Who Paved the Way: Blues Singer Gladys Bentley
- Queer Music History 101: Lesson 1, 1926-1977
- “A Spectacle in Color: The Lesbian and Gay Subculture of Jazz Age Harlem” by Eric Garber
- Bulldykers and Lady Lovers: The Rumors about Lesbian Blues Singers Were All True by Meagan Day
- Mother of the Blues by Sandra Lieb
- Blues Legacies and Black Feminism by Angela Y. Davis
- Bessie Smith by Jackie Kay
- Bessie by Chris Albertson (excerpt in Gay American History: Lesbians & Gay Men in the USAed by Jonathan Ned Katz)
- His Eye on the Sparrow and To Me, It’s Wonderful autobiographies by Ethel Waters
- Heat Wave: The Life and Career of Ethel Waters by Donald Bogle
- Ethel Waters: Stormy Weather by Stephen Bourne
- Queer in History by Keith Stern
- The Harlem Renaissance, by Steven Watson (free excerpt p124-144)
- Sapphistries by Leila Rupp
- Homosexuality in History by Colin Spencer
- Bulldaggers, Pansies, and Chocolate Babies by James F. Wilson