Singing the Lesbian Blues in 1920s Harlem

Filmmaker Robert Philipson studied the Harlem Renaissance of the early 20th century as part of his research for a course, and became intrigued with the hints of gay culture in the music of the era. That led him to produce two documentaries, first Take the Gay Train in 2008 and then a followup on lesbian performers, T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness: Queer Blues Divas of the 1920s. He tells us how those of the New York City blues scene differed from black Americans on the outside, who were striving to become "respectable" citizens.

The blues community, however, had no such concerns about respectability, and that’s where Philipson found the most references homosexuality. Which is why, three years after “Gay Train,” he followed up with another documentary, this time focusing exclusively on female blues singers with lesbian proclivities.

As it turns out, the blues world was the perfect realm for people who were thought of as “sexual deviants” to inhabit, as it thrived far outside the scope of the dominant white American culture in the early 20th century. In Jazz Age speakeasies, dive bars, and private parties, blue singers had the freedom to explore alternative sexuality, and on a rare occasion, they even expressed it in song.

Those songs are still available to us, in lyrics if not in recordings. And the lyrics were risky, because same-sex relations could get you jailed. Read about Gladys Bentley, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and others whose racy lyrics made them stars, at Collector's Weekly. Link


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