Prior to the late twentieth century, sex and violence were considered taboo among the general public. Although everyone was aware of the subjects, it was often considered too vulgar or unprofessional to speak of such adult behavior in a public setting. Blues music paved the way for many artists to express and embrace their sexuality. Although the men and women of the genre communicate in different ways (men writing about women in boastful and sexist ways, while women often express emotions of sorrow or sing of homosexual relationships), the use of sexual content in the blues shows audiences all of the frustrations of love and lust.
When blues music began to emerge, it was known for speaking of the pain and pleasure of the working class (Humphrey, 153). In fact, many genres with similar history, such as the tango of Argentina, are known for voicing the taboo—sex, alcoholic consumption, and drugs. Such music is known for giving detailed descriptions of lifestyles that, at that time, were considered scandalous. An example of this type of songwriting is “Walking the Street,” originally performed by Mamie Desdoumes (Desdoumes). The lyrics were later remastered in 1937, stating:
Stood on the corner till my feet got soakin’ wet,
Stood on the corner till my feet got soakin’ wet,
These are the words I said to each and every man I met.
“If you ain’t got a dollar, give me a lousy dime,
If you ain’t got a dollar, give me a lousy dime,
I’ve got to beg and steal to please that man of mine.
The original lyrics communicate that the prostitute works on the streets in order to provide for her husband, yet the later recording expresses the woman’s desire to please her lover, as she is willing to “beg and steal,” if only to keep hold of his love. The song’s lyrics combine the harsh realities of prostitution with the violence the lifestyle is often accompanied with, perhaps showing that sex and violence work hand in hand. While similar women’s blues songs dealing with the theme often are told from experience or out of sympathy, male blues musicians often focus on the physical aspects of a woman, such as in Blind Boy Fuller’s “Meat Shakin’ Woman.” The song’s lyrics are quite possessive, using language similar to referring to one’s property:
If when you boys see my woman you can’t keep her long
I say hey, hey, you can’t keep her long
I got a new way to keep her down, you “monkey men”” can’t catch on
Baby, for my dinner, I want ham and eggs
I say hey, hey, I want ham and eggs
And for my supper, mama, I want to feel your legs
While the lyrics may not be easily seen as violent, it can definitely be argued that they are misogynistic. Through saying, “I got a new way to keep her down,” he sounds like a slave master or brothel owner, communicating that she will always return to him, as she will always be his property (Fuller). He compares her to “ham and eggs,” showing that he views her as a meal that satisfies his inner desires, rather than as a partner. Therefore, although the lyrics are not explicitly violent in describing murder or rape, they encourage the very culture that encourages the maltreatment of females. Blind Boy Fuller is not the only one to use possessive lyrics to describe women, however. In Lonnie Johnson’s “You Can’t Buy Love,” he says:
You can give your woman plenty money,
Dress her up in fancy gowns;
She will tell her outside man
She’s got the dumbest, the dumbest man in town!
These lyrics seem slightly possessive as well, especially through saying “you can give your woman plenty money.” The main point of the stanza is that even when the man works hard for his woman and provides her with everything she could ever ask for (“plenty money” and “fancy gowns,” in this case), she still cannot be trusted to remain faithful (Johnson). While the song is likely told from the perspective of someone who has been cheated on, and it is a valid reason to be upset, a man should not be angry at a woman for such because of what he has done for her and what she can give him in return; rather, he should see her as an equal who will stay because she loves him, and not solely because she needs him to survive. Therefore, it is evident that men’s blues is a product of the time in which it was produced—a time when a man was considered the leader of the household and women were taught to be submissive. However, women’s blues defies the era it began in, teaching women to be proud of their sexuality.
Women’s blues also shows a more humorous view of sex. While Robert Johnson’s “Travelling Riverside Blues” is infamous for the line, “You can squeeze my lemon ‘til the juice run down my leg,” (Johnson) such humor is also found in Lucille Bogan’s “Shave ‘Em Dry,” which describes the singer’s sex life. She can be quoted singing:
Now your nuts hang down
Like a damn bell sapper,
And your dick stands up like a steeple.
Your goddamn ass-hole
Stands open like a church door,
And the crabs walks in like people.
Bogan speaks of her partner’s body parts with slang, often using humorous analogies such as comparing his “ass-hole” to a church door. While this can be considered immature, I believe that it teaches listeners that while physical intimacy can be a private matter, there is no shame in celebrating its pleasures. In fact, it can be fun. For example, Lucille Bogan also is known for her song, “B.D. Woman’s Blues,” “B.D.” meaning “Bull Dyke,” which is a term for a masculine lesbian (Bogan). In her day, her music was considered especially taboo. In fact, even in the present her lyrics are still considered vulgar. “B.D. Woman’s Blues” is one of the first blues songs to openly talk about lesbianism, stating that “Comin’ a time, B.D. women ain’t gonna need no men / Oh the way they treat us is a lowdown and dirty sin.” The lyrics describe the harsh reality of being a woman in her time; women were often treated as lesser beings and treated horribly by men. Therefore, a woman might be able to find comfort in having a relationship with another woman instead, as women can understand each other’s experiences. The music of Lucille Bogan shows women as every bit as diverse as men can be, owning their own sexuality and being unafraid to call out the sexist and violent behaviors of men.
While the sexist nature of some blues songs can certainly be considered a flaw of the artist, it is not a reflection on the entire genre. In fact, I believe that singing about sex helps people to understand it better. Growing up in a society where no one would talk about it, I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for people in that time to understand their sexual feelings without being ashamed of them. Furthermore, homosexuality was considered a taboo topic, and “coming out” as a gay man or lesbian would mean being removed from the church or even risking losing a job. However, even if society was having trouble embracing new sexual concepts and understanding feminism, the blues gave—and continues to give—a safe haven to those searching for it.
Allen, Fulton. “Meat Shakin’ Woman.” By Fulton Allen. 1938.
Bogan, Lucille. “B.D. Woman’s Blues.” By Lucille Bogan. 1935.
Bogan, Lucille. “Shave ‘Em Dry.” By Lucille Bogan. 1935.
Desdoumes, Mamie. “Walking the Street.” By Mamie Desdoumes. 1937.
Humphrey, Mark. “Urban Blues.” Nothing But the Blues. Ed. Lawrence Cohn. New York: Abbeville Group, n.d. 153. Print.
Johnson, Lonnie. “You Can’t Buy Love.” 1952.
Johnson, Robert. “Traveling Riverside Blues.” By Robert Johnson. 1937.