An enthusiastic, patently feminist history of women who sang or were influenced by the blues—from Mamie Desdoumes to Courtney Love.
In this revision of her doctoral dissertation from Univ. of California, Berkeley, Jackson shows a wide, easy familiarity with the history of the blues and, indeed, with the history of American popular culture. Clearly, she has listened to lots of sides, read lots of magazines and books, thought long and hard about the genesis of the blues and of its many later manifestations. She selects those women who have earned their way into the blues pantheon and offers a biographical portrait of each. She spends the most time with Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Janis Joplin, and Lucinda Williams, but along the way Jackson also offers sketches of others, including Joni Mitchell and Queen Latifah. Jackson also finds time to smudge the shiny reputations of certain singers highly popular with average Americans—Whitney Houston and Celine Dion, for example, finding both of them superficial (much artifice, little art). Jackson has found a number of similarities among the blues divas—and not only artistic ones. Drug use was common, as was a sexuality that, in Joplin’s case, is described as “voracious.” Many of the singers enjoyed lovers of both sexes and proudly proclaimed their sexual energy (sometimes even their preferences) in lyrics and in the choreography accompanying live performances. Jackson occasionally reaches a bit too far for a generalization (as in declaring that white women in the 1960s, unlike their black counterparts, were coping with the problems of suburbia—but what about Appalachian women? farm women? minimum-wage women?), but for the most part she clearly sees a dark blue thread connecting the music with the lives of the women who sang it.
A well-researched analysis of the women who created an enduring cultural phenomenon. (7 b&w photos)