Gertrude ``Ma'' Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday
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 An earnest attempt by the well-known scholar (Women, Culture, and Politics, 1989, etc.) and activist to see three great African-American singers as part of a black feminist tradition. In her appreciative analysis of the classic blues written and recorded in the 1920s and early '30s by Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, Davis (History of Consciousness/Univ. of Calif., Santa Cruz) accurately notes that these women expressed a working-class, African-American sensibility quite different from the ``uplift the race'' gentility of their middle-class peers in the Harlem Renaissance. Openly sexual, unconstrained by maternity or marriage, pragmatic about the impact of money and work on women's lives, Smith and Rainey spoke to and for ordinary blacks with a candor that remains striking and appealing today. Davis's explication of their works' political undercurrents seems accurate, if somewhat trite compared to the splendid particularity and vigor of the lyrics themselves. (The author's transcriptions of Rainey's and Smith's songs occupy one third of the text--and it's not wasted space.) It's hard to trace a strong connection between these two artists, who generally wrote their own earthy material, and Billie Holiday, stuck with the banal pop clichÇs of second-rate white Tin Pan Alley hacks. Davis makes a plausible case that Holiday transformed this dross by informing it with a subtext of irony and social consciousness, the latter quality more evident in one of the few songs she composed, the searing ``Strange Fruit.'' But a single paragraph arguing that ``Holiday was following in the footsteps of a host of black artists who preceded her . . . who . . . incorporated into their music their own brand of critical social consciousness'' needs much more fleshing out. Davis's prose, distanced and overly abstract in the vintage academic manner, could also use a shot of Rainey's humor, Smith's sass, or Holiday's soulful intensity. Intelligent, well-meaning, not without merit--but so drab compared to its vivid subjects. (8 pages b&w photos) (Author tour)

Pub Date: Feb. 18th, 1998
ISBN: 0-679-45005-X
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: Pantheon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 1997