The Women of the Blues: Hear a Playlist of Great Blues Singers, from Bessie Smith & Etta James, to Billie Holiday & Janis Joplin

Every­body gets the blues but not every­body gets the blues the same. Women get some seri­ous blues. Black women get some very seri­ous blues. Bessie Smith maybe had the most deep and soul­ful blues any­one ever had: “Crazy Blues,” “Down Heart­ed Blues,” “Care­less Love Blues,” “Emp­ty Bed Blues,” “Black Water Blues,” “Gulf Coast Blues,” and “St. Louis Blues,” which also hap­pens to be the title of her only known film appear­ance, as well as one of the ear­li­est talkies in cin­e­ma his­to­ry. (See a trans­port­ing acapel­la per­for­mance from the film above.)

Released in 1929, the “flawed, but absolute­ly essen­tial” film frames Smith’s char­ac­ter through the lyrics of com­pos­er W.C. Handy, wide­ly con­sid­ered the “father of the blues” for his pop­u­lar­iza­tion of the form. But Smith was more than an ancestor—she was roy­al­ty. The press in her day called her the “Empress of the Blues.”

Smith “comes off as a force of nature,” writes Mark Can­tor, “whose star­tling pow­er is rivaled in 1920s jazz and blues only by Louis Arm­strong.” Like Arm­strong, her influ­ence is incal­cu­la­ble. Sad­ly, the year she made her film appear­ance is also the year of her decline, when the Great Depres­sion hit her—and the record business—hard, and the very medi­um she helped launch, sound film, crip­pled the Vaude­ville venues that made her career.

Smith’s trag­ic end after a car acci­dent in 1937 was immor­tal­ized in Edward Albee’s 1959 The Death of Bessie Smith. Her voice lives on forever—in her record­ings and through singers from Bil­lie Hol­i­day to Janis Joplin—who paid for her grave­stone in 1970. (See Joplin’s phe­nom­e­nal “Ball and Chain,” from the Mon­terey Pop Fes­ti­val, fur­ther up.) Bessie Smith may have been Empress, but anoth­er Smith needs men­tion as the Fore­moth­er.

Despite its ori­gins in South­ern Black life and cul­ture, until 1920, notes NPR, “no black singer had been record­ed doing a blues song.” That changed when Mamie Smith record­ed “Crazy Blues.” Like Bessie, she also appeared in a 1929 talk­ing film, Jail­house Blues. (See her above mime to the title song, about that age-old prob­lem, the “no good man.”)

A num­ber of female singers haven’t made it into the canon, itself large­ly produced—as crit­ics like Lisa Hix and Aman­da Petru­sich have shown—by the selec­tion bias of an insu­lar com­mu­ni­ty of col­lec­tors. But you can hear many incred­i­ble, less-famous women of the blues appear in the Spo­ti­fy playlist fur­ther up, in the com­pa­ny of more famous names like Bessie and Mamie Smith, Hol­i­day, Joplin, Mem­phis Min­nie, Ma Rainey, Etta James, and Dinah Wash­ing­ton. Blues hounds will like­ly rec­og­nize most, if not all, of these names. More casu­al fans will be in for a treat. (Note one mis­take: the artist Bum­ble Bee Slim was a man.)

Every­one should know Koko Tay­lor, whose fierce growls and howls set Willie Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doo­dle” on fire fur­ther up in 1967 (with Lit­tle Wal­ter). And Etta James—whose “I’d Rather Go Blind,” above, gives me chills from start to finish—should have a con­stel­la­tion named after her, she’s so deserved­ly a star. We’re less like­ly to hear the name Vio­la McCoy these days (singing Bessie Smith’s “Back Water Blues,” below), whose style of blues sounds dat­ed but whose voice is as fresh as ever. Like­ly born Aman­da Brown, she sang under a hand­ful of alias­es in the 20s and 30s, none of them house­hold names.

Dozens more names appear on the playlist—Ida Cox, Alber­ta Hunter, (unfor­tu­nate­ly no Big Mama Thorn­ton or Sis­ter Roset­ta Tharpe)—all of them fab­u­lous in their own way. Giv­en this incred­i­bly rich tra­di­tion of female blues vocal­ists it should come as no sur­prise that women are cur­rent­ly keep­ing the blues alive, whether it’s the rock-soul revival­ism of the Alaba­ma Shakes’ Brit­tany Howard or the raw pow­er of Susan Tedeschi, whose “earthy, soul­ful belt­ing,” writes The Wash­ing­ton Post’s Richard Har­ring­ton, is rem­i­nis­cent of “Koko Tay­lor, Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin,” who can all trace their musi­cal lin­eage direct­ly back to Bessie and Mamie Smith.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Women of Jazz: Stream a Playlist of 91 Record­ings by Great Female Jazz Musi­cians

Stream 35 Hours of Clas­sic Blues, Folk, & Blue­grass Record­ings from Smith­son­ian Folk­ways: 837 Tracks Fea­tur­ing Lead Bel­ly, Woody Guthrie & More

The His­to­ry of the Blues in 50 Riffs: From Blind Lemon Jef­fer­son (1928) to Joe Bona­mas­sa (2009)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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