The evolution of the art of female blues singing during the first half of the 20th century is documented in hundreds upon hundreds of old phonograph records. The best way to listen back from the 21st century is by way of a comprehensive anthology of historic recordings. By far one of the best collections ever to appear in this category is Women in Blues, a 36-track mini-archive released in 2002 by Fremeaux & Associes. As is the case with most of this label's efforts, the titles are well chosen, the texts and discographical listings are intelligently presented, and the overall content is consistently rewarding. The compilation opens, logically, with Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues," the first widely distributed blues recording by an African-American artist, which was cut on August 10, 1920. That record, which sold unexpectedly well, proved to the white-owned and operated recording industry that an African-American record-buying public existed and could be profitably targeted through the marketing of recordings made by people of color. This one record helped to set in motion the cycles of innovation and emulation that have characterized our racially encoded entertainment industry ever since.
The producers of this collection combined significant and relatively well-known early entertainers like Alberta Hunter, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Ethel Waters with names that might not ring as many bells even among listeners who have actively pursued this kind of music before. It's good to grow familiar with the tone and texture of Bessie Smith's voice, to develop an intimate working relationship with Ma Rainey's approach to performing the blues, and to recognize the sound of Alberta Hunter many decades before her comeback recordings brought her unprecedented fame as an endearing elderly survivor of a bygone era. Additionally, the best thing about "classic female blues" is all of the women whose voices you haven't heard yet. Depending of course upon each listener's familiarity with vintage blues, there are several levels of obscurity and fame at work here, as Memphis Minnie, Ida Cox, Victoria Spivey, and Georgia White are presented in the same compendium as Mattie Delaney, Merline Johnson, Lottie Beaman, Hattie McDaniel, and Alice Moore.
For those who haven't heard them or wish to become more familiar with their sounds, a little taste of Rosa Henderson, Clara Smith or Bertha "Chippie" Hill should rekindle curiosity and encourage further exploration. Note the inclusion of jazz singers who also made their mark as interpreters of the blues: Billie Holiday and Mildred Bailey were largely associated with Tin Pan Alley pop songs. Helen Humes had a closer affiliation with blues, and rose to prominence with the Count Basie Orchestra, that indefatigable engine of blues-based swing. This chronologically stacked history of early to mid-century female blues singing follows Rosetta Tharpe, Lil Green, and the elusive Muriel Nichols (professionally known as Wee Bea Booze) to the logical culmination of Dinah Washington's first recording session, a Keynote date from 1943. The lesson of Dinah Washington is that some women cannot be confined to one genre. By drawing a line from Mamie Smith to Dinah Washington, Fremeaux & Associes has created a useful and very enjoyable overview of a diverse and often misunderstood musical tradition.