"Detroit Blues Women" explores how African American "women's blues" survived the twentieth century relatively unscripted by the image-makers of the male-dominated music industry. In the 1920s, African American blues queens laid out a foundation for assertive and rebellious women's blues that the many musical heirs who succeeded them in the twentieth century and into the first decade of the twenty first century sustained, preserved and built upon. The dissertation argues that women's blues, which encouraged women to liberate themselves and seek sexual, social and political freedom, survived into the twenty-first century despite facing the formidable obstacles of racism, capitalism and patriarchy.
The story of African American women's blues in the twentieth century relates to two different types of migration, the first being the very physical and concrete Great Migration of 1910 to 1930 that brought blues music and many southern African Americans north. The second migration was the more abstract, aesthetic, transcendent journey that took blues women, and their blues across barriers of race, class and gender. Both of these migrations were crucial to the ongoing formation of women's blues and to the development of the women who sing the blues.
Some blues scholars often emphasize that, with the exception of the 1920s blues queens, blues music has been predominantly masculine territory, in terms of its audiences and performers, and masculinity has become almost synonymous with authenticity in the blues. Female blues scholars, like Daphne Duvall Harrison, Angela Y. Davis, Hazel V. Carby, Sandra Leib, and Marybeth Hamilton, have begun in recent decades to examine and assess both the concept of women’s blues and the role of blues women in African American society and in the United States. The concept of women’s blues remains controversial, even among some of the women interviewed for this study.
This study also seeks to discount notions that the blues queens of the 1920s, or any era, were, to a large degree, the creation of the music business. They emerged from African American working-class traditions and innovations; the most prominent innovation was blues music itself, which appears to have been a late nineteenth century African American invention that built upon many then popular African American musical elements. Through the world of blues music, African American women and the working-class black Americans who initially supported them, had a great impact on the American music business, which in many ways was forced to adapt to the burgeoning African American market.
A major argument embedded in “Detroit Blues Women” holds that women’s power and control over defining their own sexuality through the medium of blues music did not die out following that brief period in which women’s blues stood at the forefront of African American popular entertainment. At least within the realm of blues music, black women have continued to formulate and portray a more inner-directed sexuality that both challenges and resists patriarchal, racist, and class-based assumptions regarding a black woman’s place.