When we talk about Rock n' Roll in its infancy, we're also talking about the Blues in its prime. Rock n' roll and Blues are inseparable, so much so that its difficult to pinpoint exactly when the stylistic changes began to emerge between them, even though we're very well aware that the Blues, the music of the poor, downtrodden, dopesick, and primarily black, came about first. The Blues was born out of oppression, its words sung as pickaxes cracked rocks, its guitars played by withered and calloused fingers. These were songs about poverty, drug addiction, death, and trying as best one can to exist in a society that doesn't want you. This was the first time a music was produced by and aimed at the working class.
Of course, when we talk about the blues, we already have a whole host of names in our cannon. Blind Willie Johnson, Lemon Jefferson, Skip James, Willie McTell, Lightnin' Hopkins, almost every territory in the Southern US had its own crowd of names and each one of them an innovator in his own right. But when we think of Blues artists, we seem to immediately turn to its guitar players, its predominantly male artists, those names that were constantly dropped by later rock n' roll acts like Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. The male voice of the Blues was the predominant one, but there was always a female voice there too, she was just hidden or ignored. This was a time when the Jim Crow South wasn't welcoming to the black man, and even less welcoming to the black woman. With a music fed by debilitating sadness, oppression, social rejection and the constant specter of death looming over large families, who more suitable to play the Blues than the black woman? A woman who, even to this day, still suffers marginalization on a wide scale.
With that said, let's have a look at some of the women that played integral roles in shaping the Blues, giving birth to Rock n' Roll, and changing the landscape of music forever.
Big Mama Thornton
Perhaps the perfect example of the overshadowing of female artists at the time, Big Mama Thornton was the first musician to record "Hound Dog" in 1952, a song made vastly more popular by the vastly more accessible Elvis Presley. Thornton's short-lived popularity began its fade to black as the 50s got its first dose of the faster and more spirited Rock n' Roll emerging at the time, but her influence on the later Rn'B artists is evident even today.
Reintroduced by Moby's hit single "Natural Blues" and championed in the Alabama Women's Hall of Fame, Vera Hall's career is most celebrated for her large contribution to the Blues genre and the minimalist approach with which she took to creating her music. Hall stripped the Blues down to its rawest form, a melancholic wail and a hand clapping a knee for percussion. Hypnotic and intimate in equal measures.
Somewhat closer to Swing than to the Blues, Trixie Smith's middle class background and education placed her in a different place than most of the artists featured in this article, if only because her music was fully accompanied with a supporting band and conformed to some of the more popular elements of the music of the time.
Bertha "Chippie" Hill
Melancholic, harmonious, and having spent the majority of her life in show business, "Chippie" was a true student of performance and her ties to the Blues are evident in her mournful vocal delivery. Unfortunately, Bertha's life was cut horrendously short by a car accident in 1950, ending both her life and closing the door of possibilities for a career that could have easily flourished in the early 50s.
Guitarist, vocalist, recording artist, Memphis Minnie entered into a realm of the Blues that was mostly reserved for the menfolk, but she didn't care all too much for that. With over 200 songs under her belt, a voice that booms and croaks, and a boogie-woogie style of guitar playing, Minnie broke many of the taboos regarding female artists at the time and in doing so, perhaps laid out the idea of music as androgynous, her music poking holes in the gendered blueprints of music at the time.