Back to the Show

Obscure Queer Blues
November 2014
The Script

Ma Rainey - Prove It On Me Blues (1928)

Yes, "I went out last night with a crowd of my friends, they must have been women cause I don't like no men." That's probably the most iconic queer blues song, and it was done by Ma Rainey in 1928. It may likely for most of my listeners be the most known song on the entire show, as this show will go deep. This is JD Doyle for Queer Music Heritage and this month I'm visiting Obscure Queer Blues Songs almost exclusively from the 1920s and '30s. Some will be by singers who were known to be gay, lesbian or bisexual and some were by straight artists whose songs refer to the subject of homosexuality in some way, and it will be a two-hour show. I tell you, I put a lot of research into this one.

While Ma Rainey's song "Prove It On Me Blues" is fresh in your mind I'm going to play one that directly ripped it off, and was recorded only two months later, by Waymon "Sloppy" Henry. It has the same hook, but the lyrics are much more gay. And they include another euphemism for sex, coffee grinding. The song is called "Say I Do It."

Waymon "Sloppy" Henry - Say I Do It (1928)

I'm going to go back to Ma Rainey for the start of a set of songs about sissies. In 1925 she did one called "Sissy Blues." Now, in blues songs back then 'jelly roll' was often used as slang for female genitalia, though in this case it wasn't female. The four verses go...

I dreamed last night I was far from harm
Woke up and found my man in a sissy's arms

Some are young, some are old
My man says sissy's got good jelly roll

My man got a sissy, his name is Miss Kate
He shook that thing like jelly on a plate

Now all the people ask me why I'm all alone
A sissy shook that thing and took my man from home

Ma Rainey - Sissy Blues (1925)
Connie McLean's Rhythm Boys - Sissy Man Blues (1936)

Below, also see This Link for more info

"Sissy Man Blues" was recorded four times in the mid-1930s, with Kokomo Arnold perhaps having the most success with it. I played a version by Connie McLean's Rhythm Boys, from 1936, and all the versions have in common the line "if you can't send me no woman, bring me a sissy man." And from 1938 Louis Powel brings us one more song called "Sissy," with some interesting chatter the beginning.

Louis Powell - Sissy (1938)
George Hannah with Meade Lux Lewis - Freakish Man Blues (1930)

That was the openly gay George Hannah, singing vocals on a Meade Lux Lewis track from 1930, called "Freakish Blues" and from the following year, he gave us one called "Boy in a Boat." This is another slang song, as 'boy in a boat' referred to the clitoris, and starting with the second verse, it's all about the women.

George Hannah with Meade Lux Lewis - The Boy in the Boat (1931)

Sometimes when you are researching queer references in blues songs, what you find is very short, or only comes later in a song. I've got some examples. In the 1936 song "Garbage Man," by the Harlem Hamfats after the first 45 seconds the rest of the song is instrumental, but they do get down to business right away. They talk about sticking out your can, or butt, for the garbage man. And as if it wasn't clear enough, the song is subtitled "The Call of the Freaks."

Harlem Hamfats - Garbage Man (The Call of the Freaks) (1936)

In 1929, Rufus Perryman, better known just as Speckled Red, recorded "Dirty Dozens." I'll give you the first verse and then skip to the third where he talks about seducing a whole family, including daddy.

Speckled Red Perryman - Dirty Dozens (1929)

Next up Lucille Bogan, who was also known as Bessie Jackson. Sometimes artists would record under different names so that they could get paid by more than one record company. And most of her output was under the name Bogan, where in 1927 she recorded this one. She gets to the point in the last section where she wishes for the day when "Women Don't Need No Men."

Lucille Bogan - Women Don't Need No Men (1927)

Above, apparently the only photo known of Lucille Bogan,
and below, as Bessie Jackson, in a 1948 ad, though I question
if this is the same person. As Jackson she stopped recording
in 1935 and managed her son's jazz group for a number of
years. She moved to L.A. just a few weeks before she died,
on August 10, 1948.

Okay, "Women Don't Need No Men," by Lucille Bogan. But eight years later, going under the name Bessie Jackson, you'll hear the same phrasing, but this time it's BD women who don't need no men. And in "BD Women's Blues" the BD stood for the slang terms bull dykes or bull daggers. And it became one of the most openly lesbian songs of the blues.

Bessie Jackson - BD Woman (1935)

Here's another song that doesn't get interesting, to us, until the last verse. In 1930 the Hokum Boys recorded one called "Somebody's Been Using That Thing," and I just love the backing group. Anyway, near the end they sing about female impersonators and very butch women.

Below, verses 6 & 7

Hokum Boys - Somebody's Been Using That Thing (1930)
Alberta Hunter - Downhearted Blues (1922)

"Downhearted Blues" by Alberta Hunter, from 1922. Alberta Hunter was one of our lesbian blues divas, who had a long career. She was successful almost immediately, starting from the early 20's, began recording, performing on Broadway, and even in the London production of "Showboat," starring opposite Paul Robeson. New York society treated her and her girlfriend Lottie Tyler like a couple and reported on them in the gossip items, such as when they went to attend a recital by Robeson at Carnegie Hall, along with Langston Hughes and gay Harlem Renaissance writer Carl Van Vechten. She retired in the 1950s but made a remarkable comeback at age 81, in 1977, and performed until her death in 1988.

I've found an intriguing song by her from 1923, called "Someone Will Take your Place." Like many of these songs it's almost two minutes until the interesting lines but in those lines she sings "so if you didn't want me, tell me to my face, cause five or six women going to take your place." Alberta Hunter.

Alberta Hunter - Someone Will Take Your Place (1923)

Alberta Hunter helped popularize a number of songs, including one she never recorded called "Pretty Baby." I mention it because it was composed by Tony Jackson, a musician known for his ability to accompany anyone on the piano, in any style, and do it with flair. And he was openly gay. It's widely reported that he wrote "Pretty Baby" for his boyfriend. Jackson never recorded but I want you to hear just a clip of the song, you'll probably recognize it, as it was later sanitized for the likes of Fanny Brice, and later in Hollywood, Doris Day, Dean Martin, and in this case, from 1948, Al Jolson.

Al Jolson - Pretty Baby (1948)

Oh, I sure wish Alberta Hunter had recorded a version. A moment ago I mentioned Carl Van Vechten. He was a white gay writer and photographer and you can hardly research the Harlem Renaissance without learning about him. He was an avid financial patron of many black artists and writers, like Langston Hughes, Ethel Waters, Walter Thurman, and more, and as a photographer he captured the who's who of Harlem and New York City and world Society. It seems he knew them all, and Gertrude Stein even made him her literary executor.


Not sure if this is James P Johnson, but it seems likely, as I have found a listing from 1931 for "Jimmy Johnson & His Band"

This next song gives a quick nod to him. It's by Jimmy Johnson & His Orchestra and in a song called "Go Harlem," its very short verse part says "like Van Vechten, start inventing"....

Jimmy Johnson & His Orchestra - Go Harlem (1931)

The rest of the track is instrumental and skatting, quite a curious song. Now, the very early thirties was during the so-called Pansy Craze and that and Harlem seemed to go hand in hand. In the 1931 novel "Strange Brother," by Blair Niles, two of the characters want to go clubbing in this other world, and they visit the Lobster Pot, a fictionalized version of the real Clam House, where Gladys Bentley held court, and as the character Sybil she's described, as large and mannish singer. They also encounter a black female impersonator going by the Sepia Gloria Swanson. This was a real person, and was quite well known at the time, and who worked in Chicago and then Harlem. Another famed female impersonator went by the Sepia Mae West. I have a song by him, though under his real name Dick Barrow. Barrow was an emcee and band leader in the Bronzeville section of Chicago in those years where the Cabin Club was a high profile venue for female impersonators. That's mentioned in his recording from 1936, essentially a commercial for the club, called "Down at the Cabin Inn."

Above, Dick Barrow emcees the 1949 film "Burlesque in Harlem,"
and This Video shows a few seconds of him

Dick Barrow - Down at the Cabin Inn (1936)
Dick Barrow - Rent Party Blues (1950)

As long as I was playing Dick Barrow, I included one from 1950, "Rent Party Blues," and rent parties were the subject of a number of blues songs from the 1920's on. Folks were just trying to raise the rent.

But a couple moments ago I was talking about Gladys Bentley. She is how I will end this segment. And you're saying, wait, what about the blues divas Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters and Frankie Half-Pint Jaxon? All in good time, I've got them, and many others on deck for Part 2.

Click for my Special Show on Gladys Bentley

Gladys Bentley was a big woman, about 250 to 300 pounds and wore men's clothing and cut a dashing figure in her white top hat and tux. And she was something no other blues singer of those decades was, openly lesbian.

Regarding her, I'm going to leave the 30s for a moment, as I have something very rare to play for you. Now, I avidly collect her recordings, and in February 2013 I did a special show on her, that included some unreleased material. But at that time I did not own her last recording on the Excelsior Records label, from 1945. But I do now, and it took me years to track it down. I could not even find a place on the internet to hear it before finding a copy. So this is the first good time I've had to share it. I've mixed together about half of each track, so you can hear both sides. Here's Gladys Bentley and "Notoriety Papa" and "He Went to the Girl Next Door."

Gladys Bentley - Notoriety Papa / He Went to the Girl Next Door (1945)

This is JD Doyle and I hope you are enjoying my special on Obscure Queer Blues, as I've got another hour or so for you to check out. Gladys Bentley will close Part 1 with her first release, which turned out to be about her most famous, from 1928, "Worried Blues."

Gladys Bentley - Worried Blues (1928)

Bessie Smith - T'ain't Nobody's Business If I Do (1923)
Bessie Smith - A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1927)

This is JD Doyle and welcome back to my show on Obscure Queer Blues, but of course Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues, is definitely not obscure. From 1923 "T'Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do" is one of her most famed songs, and also the name of a short documentary I encourage you to see, that has the subtitle of "Queer Blues Divas of the 1920's."

Click for some rare images of Bessie

I also played a song by her that always seems to resonate with gay men, called "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." That one was from 1927. She had a relatively short career, recording for only ten years, but churned out an incredible 160 tracks, almost exclusively for Columbia Records. She died as a result of an auto accident, in 1937, at age 43.

Smith was a larger than life figure, and though married, her lesbian affairs were far from secret. She is widely quoted as saying during a fight with a girlfriend, "I got twelve women on this show, and I can have one every night if I want it." But you don't have to take my word for it. Thanks to Chris Albertson, who wrote the definitive biography of Bessie Smith, we have extensive audio interviews with Bessie's niece Ruby Smith, who was also one of Bessie's backup dancers. The interviews were done in 1971, and here's Ruby talking first about Bessie's affair with Lillian Simpson.

Ruby Smith on Bessie's affair with Lillian Simpson (1971)

And she gets much more explicit when talking about buffet flats.

Ruby Smith on Buffet Flats (1971)

Bessie Smith had a song about Buffet Flats, though of course she didn't go into the detail Ruby did. From 1925 it was called the "Soft Pedal Blues."

Bessie Smith - Soft Pedal Blues (1925)
Bessie Smith - Foolish Man Blues (1927)

In 1927's "Foolish Man Blues" Bessie sang " There's two things got me puzzled, there's two things I can't stand, A mannish actin' woman and a skippin' twistin' woman actin' man." That's one of the very few examples of gay references in her songs.

And I want to mention one of the frustrating things about being a researcher. It's that once in a while you find things stated as fact but when you try to verify them, well, you just cannot. I've got two Bessie Smith examples. In 1928 she recorded the song "Empty Bed Blues," about a man. And I found an article about it by David Hajdu, who wrote a wonderful biography of Billy Strayhorn. He says Bessie sang the lyrics....

I want a deep-sea diving woman
That got a stroke that can't go wrong
I want a deep-sea diving woman
That got a stroke that can't go wrong
Yeah, touch that bottom, gal
Hold it all night long

Well, while I would love to verify that, I just cannot. Perhaps he has some way of knowing that she sang those lyrics live, but I do not think she recorded them. Let's hear the non-lesbian version, where she's definitely singing about a man.

Bessie Smith - Empty Bed Blues (1928)

And here's another frustrating example, and it seems once you find something reported to be true, on the internet it's like a wave and you see it over and over, even with the same phrasing. Several websites report that Bessie Smith sang a song called "It's Dirty But Good." It has the lyrics "I know women that don't like men /The way they do is a crying sin / It's dirty but good, oh, yes, it's dirty but good /There ain't much difference, it's just dirty but good."

Now, she may have sang it on stage. I don't think anyone can prove either way whether or not she did, but I just don't think she recorded it, as so, so many internet references directly say. But it was recorded by the guys who wrote it, Rufus & Ben Quillian, in 1930.

Rufus & Ben Quillian - It's Dirty But Good (1930)

Oh, while I'm at it, I want to complain about one more so-called fact on the internet that I cannot verify. In a number of places, including the reputable site, you'll find it implies that Ma Rainey recorded a track called "Bull Dyker's Dream." Okay, where is it? Do you think a blatant title like that if it existed would have just slipped away? Hopefully, by my mentioning it, someone who used google regarding it and found my script page will contact me.

Bull Dyker's Blues

I worked so hard researching
this that I decided to share
what I found, and hopefully
encourage others with
additional info to
contact me

Now, just to touch more bases, my research did uncover a transitional ragtime song composed at the very end of the 1800s by Jesse Pickett, and he taught it to Eubie Blake in 1894. It was just called "The Dream," but it was also known as "The Bull Diker's Dream," or "The Digah's Dream," or "The Ladies' Dream." Just why it got those other names will be another mystery of history. Pianist James P Johnson finally captured it in 1945, but as you can hear, it was an instrumental, with a Latin tinge.

James P Johnson - The Dream (1945)

And we'll return to James P Johnson in a few minutes.

In this next track the back story is more interesting than the song. In 1923 Guildford Payne recorded "Peachtree Man Blues," using a variety of voices. He was nicknamed Peachtree and he was reported to be a hermaphrodite, with female breasts and male genitals.

Guildford Peachtree Payne - Peachtree Man Blues (1923)
Billy Mitchell - Two Old Maids in a Folding Bed (1936)

"We got to have some yum yum yum, before we go away." There are many versions of the song "Two Old Maids in a Folding Bed," and if you do a search on it you'll find Monette Moore, in 1923, had the most known version, but I think that one is boring, and prefer the 1936 one by Billy Mitchell.

I wanted to take a moment to honor a noted composer and musician, Porter Grainger. He accompanied on piano a who's who of the blues during the 1920s and early 30s, and for a time was in Bessie Smith's inner circle, and he was reported to be flamboyantly gay. His most famous composition is probably the one I opened this segment with, "T'ain't Nobody's Business If I Do."

He is much more known for playing on the recordings of others and only recorded a handful on his own, and they are very rare, but I found one, from 1927, called "Nothin' But a Double Barrel Shotgun." On the 78's label he's billed as Porter Grainger the Singin' Piano Man.

Porter Grainger - Nothin' But a Double Barrel Shotgun (1927)

And as long as I'm honoring piano players, I want to include the openly gay Carroll Boyd, who was very popular in Harlem in the 20s through the 40s. I found a track with him backing up Alberta Jones, from 1926, and while not in great shape, I was pleased to find it at all. Here's Alberta Jones singing "It Must Be Hard." And remember, I'm not playing Amanda Brown and Alberta Jones because they had any gay connection, but so that you could hear the piano players backing them.

Alberta Jones - It Must Be Hard (1926)
Ethel Waters - My Handy Man (1928)

And yes I did warn you that this show gets pretty deep into queer blues.

I told you I would return to James P Johnson, and not that he had any gay connections, but he backed up Ethel Waters on that last track, "My Handy Man," from 1928. Ethel Waters deserves a show all to herself, as she was one of the classic blues singers, and she was open about her lesbian relationships in the 20s. She lived with a woman named Ethel Williams and the society columns nicknamed them the "two Ethels."And Waters was a star almost immediately, with a career that lasted decades. She was popular on Broadway, in films and later on television. She was nominated for an Academy Award in 1949. While she started singing blues music, by the end of the 1920s her style was more pop, and she is credited with the first recordings of these classic songs: "Am I Blue," from 1929, and from 1933 "Stormy Weather"

Ethel Waters - Am I Blue (1929)
Ethel Waters - Stormy Weather (1933)

This is JD Doyle, closing out Part 2 of the show Obscure Queer Blues. Yup, I have no willpower, but I do not do shows like this often and want to include all that's appropriate, and that means a two and a half hour show this time.

So, I can't resist playing one more by Ethel Waters, and it was a big hit for her, but while folks in 1925 likely didn't give it much thought, I like that it is directly sung to a woman, named "Dinah."

Ethel Waters - Dinah (1925)

Covered by Johnny Winter in 1986

Also covered by Willie Kahn, 2010
and by others, search the title on Youtube

Memphis Willie B - Bad Girls Blues (1961)

Welcome back for one more half hour-ish, of Obscure Queer Blues. I'm JD Doyle and that song was definitely a big jump ahead on our timeline, and is from 1961, but I just had to include it as the singer, Memphis Willie B, was so complaining about women loving each other. It was called "Bad Girl Blues."

And as long as I am venturing out of the thirties, I'll stop at 1949 for a duet by Pearl Bailey and Jackie Mabley. Now, you are probably more familiar with Mabley under the name Moms Mabley, who was a very successful, if off-color, comedian in the 1950s and 60s, and into the 70s. But back in the 30s, in Harlem, was already an entertainer, and an openly lesbian one. Here's Pearl Bailey and Jackie Mabley doing "Saturday Night Fish Fry."

Pearl Bailey & Jackie Mabley - Saturday Night Fish Fry (1949)

Above, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm had their own lesbian conection, Tiny Davis

The duet with Perl Bailey was released on this 1973 LP, but therecording is much older, from 1949

You may know I have little willpower when it comes to wanting to include as many obscure recordings as possible, even if it means this segment will run over the hour mark. So here's another 78 from 1947, and it's very, very rare. Petite Swanson was a member of Valda Gray's female impersonation troop in Chicago, at Joe's Deluxe Club. As far as I know, this was Petite Swanson's only recording, and I'll play both sides, "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" and "My Jockey Knows How to Ride."

Petite Swanson - Lawdy Miss Clawdy / My Jockey Knows How to Ride (1947)
Bert "Snakeroot" Hatton - Freakish Rider Blues (1927)

Click for More on Swanson

There's that word "freakish" again, never a good sign, as Bert "Snake Root" Hatton sang to us about the "Freakish Rider Blues," in 1927.

Alas, the one below is an instrumental, so didn't make the show, but interesting to know about

Here's another that did not make the show, as despite the title, to me the lyrics are vague

Much More Frankie Jaxon

We haven't heard yet from Frankie "Half-Pint" Jaxon, and he was quite prolific, working as a singer, comedian and female impersonator. This became fun when on some recordings he took the female role, and I have two great examples, both from 1929. First, he's a female patient visiting the doctor in "Operation Blues," and right after that, my favorite by him. For that one he guests on a recording by Tampa Red's Hokum Jazz Band. He'll tell us "My Daddy Rocks Me With One Steady Roll."

Frankie "Half-Pint" Jaxon - Operation Blues (1929)
Tampa Red & Frankie Jaxon - My Daddy Rocks Me With One Steady Roll (1929)

I think that recording is just a delight. I think that recording is just a delight. Also from 1929 is Mary Dixon with a very catchy song called "All Around Mama." In the verses she tells us about various men she's slept with, but in the first part of the fourth verse she complains a bit, and for once is picky, as she sings

I met a man, was a butler, when he spoke I ran
Was too mannish for a woman, too girlish for a man.

After the end of the first verse I'm going to jump to that section.

Mary Dixon - All Around Mama (1929)

And here's another track from 1929, in which Bertha Idaho tells us quite a bit about a particular street in Baltimore. Pay attention to the second verse, which goes:

Let's take a trip down to that cabaret,
Where they turn night into day,
Some freakish sights you'll surely see,
You can't tell the he's from the she's,
You'll find 'em every night on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Bertha Idaho - Down on Pennsylvania Avenue (1929)

Billy Banks moved from Cleveland to New York in the early 30s and soon found himself leading a band at the famous Connie's Inn in Harlem. He was acclaimed for his comedy and impersonations, including female impersonations. It reportedly is him singing both the lead and the falsetto voice on his 1932 recording of "Mean Old Bed Bug Blues."

Billy Banks & His Rhythmakers - Mean Old Bed Bug Blues (1932)

This is JD Doyle and thank you for travelling with me for my special on Obscure Queer Blues. This is my first blues show since 2007, but that one spanned through 1970, where this one was more focused, to mostly 1920s and 1930s. And, oh yeah, my February 2013 show was a very special one devoted to Gladys Bentley, and even included some unreleased material. So check that out as well. For this show I admit Billy Banks is more jazz band than blues, but I could not resist including him. And I have one more by him to close the show. It's such a delightful song with its man on man lyrics, and wonders if he is using a euphemism for a male body part as he sings "Oh, Peter (You're So Nice)."

Billy Banks & His Rhythmakers- Oh, Peter (1932)

Much More on Billy Banks

Harlem in 1944, note the Apollo theatre farther down the street