Nobody sings the blues the way Mississippi women sing it—not Robert Johnson, not Muddy Waters, not B.B. King. Yet these Mississippi women, mostly Black women, have been largely left off the record.
W.C. Handy set the blues stage with mostly Black men after he first heard the blues in Tutwiler, Miss., in 1903. Handy listened to blues music throughout Mississippi, calling himself the “Father of the Blues.” One of the first historians and collectors of African American blues and work songs during and after slavery in Mississippi and Georgia was a white man named Harold Washington Odum. In 1925, Odum published his first book, “The Negro and His Songs.”
But what about “Her Songs?”
‘Ar’n’t I a Woman?’
Deborah Gray White, a renowned Rutgers University Professor on Women’s and Gender Studies, wrote in her 1985 book “Ar’n’t I a Woman?” that enslaved Black women lived “with the dual burden of racism and sexism.” After emancipation, they had to fight harder “to gain their rights, hold their families together, resist economic and sexual oppression, and maintain their sense of womanhood against all odds.”
In other words, Black women had more to be blue about and still do.
Take blues and jazz singer Albennie Jones, also known as Albinia Jones. She was born in 1914 in Errata, Miss., but grew up in Gulfport where she sang in the choir at Mount Holy Baptist Church. Jones later moved to New York to launch a blues career in 1932. Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, saxophonist Don Byas and pianist Sammy Price played behind her voice—a voice one critic said was the first female voice that “fit in the rock ‘n’ roll bag” of the sixties.
Promoted as the “New Queen of the Blues,” she toured widely with Blanche Calloway, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Tiny Bradshaw, and the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra, well-known and highly-regarded jazz and blues entertainers. Jones recorded with Price the rocking rhythm and blues number, “Hole in the Wall,” featuring the line “we’re going to rock and roll at the Hole in the Wall tonight”—one of the first known usage of the phrase, “rock ‘n’ roll.”
It didn’t work out for Jones, though. She fell off a stage in the early 1950s, prematurely ending her blossoming career. Record labels discarded her after she held herself up with a crutch while singing on stage. Today her legacy receives little attention, if any, in the blues museums and blues books. The Mississippi Department of Tourism did give her at least one sentence in its description of blues markers throughout the state.
|Albinia Jones’ recording of “Hole in the Wall.” Courtesy YouTube|
Jones hasn’t been the only female blues singer discarded from Mississippi’s blues history. The Mississippi Blues Trail page on the tourism department’s website includes only 17 Mississippi women out of a list of about 211 musicians. Eleven of the 17 women are only briefly mentioned, including Albinia Jones. Only six of them have a marker planted in their honor on Mississippi soil.
The remaining 11 earning an honorable mention are Albinia Jones; six of them born in or near Meridian, Miss.: Cleo Brown (born in De Kalb, 1907-1995), famed for her 1935-1936 boogie-woogie and jive records; Marie Bryant (1917-1978), a singer, dancer and film star who made calypso records in England; Helen Elizabeth Jones Woods (1923-2020), trombonist with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm; Louvet Jackson (1936-1988), who performed in New York; and Pat Brown (1949-2019) and Patrice Moncell (1962-2015), both top singers on the Jackson, Miss., soul-blues scene.
Grammy-award winning Koko Taylor (1928-2009) who was well known for her rough, powerful vocals and referred to as “The Queen of the Blues,” mentored Nellie “Tiger” Travis during her time in Chicago. Travis, born in Mound Bayou, Miss., is one of the best examples of an artist mixing blues, southern soul, rhythm and blues, rock and roll and more. Her unfiltered vocals and global music continue to cross age, gender and racial boundaries.
Then there is Tempy Smith, who was born in Ocean Springs, Miss., and performed in both New Orleans and Harlem, where she earned an exceptional reputation as a music teacher and performer. Ruby Elzy, born in Pontotoc, Miss.,1908-1943, was a Juilliard-trained diva, known as a renowned classical singer who performed in the original Broadway cast of “Porgy and Bess” and sang “St. Louis Blues” in the 1941 movie, “Birth of the Blues.”
Mississippi Blues: An Uniquely American Genre
Today, blues tourism is a money-maker. People in this country and abroad love the blues, country blues, jazz, gospel and their genre relatives. Yet tourists have to drive for hours only to see a marker.
They can drive to Indianola to hear the blues in the best blues museum in the country—the B.B. King Museum. Blues lovers can find songs there that are hard to find online. You can spend days inside the museum with earplugs inserted, listening to songs recorded by women and people of color, but most of the women are not from Mississippi.
Indianola benefits from the B.B. King Museum, but some of the poorest cities in Mississippi, where blues singers were born and lived, benefit very little if at all: Mound Bayou, Greenville, Tunica, Edwards, Tutwiler, Lexington and more. Where are their museums or tours? And how do we talk about these counties more often and in more places to bring back their rich history?
Sadly, the lists ranking the most influential female blues singers in the country include no Mississippi women, only women born close to or who died in Mississippi.
It’s certainly not shocking to realize that record companies, music clubs, researchers, as well as the state have not given Black women musicians from Mississippi the recognition they deserve, compared to both white and Black male musicians.
Mississippi has been blessed with such a huge helping of musical talent today and a history of artistic giants. Women sang and wrote music either in church or, as Jones sang, at “the hole in the wall” from Tunica to Tupelo and stretching from Vardaman to Vicksburg.
Mississippi’s tourism department or the state legislature should fund a blues promotion effort to expand its recognition of not only men of color who sang the blues, but blues women, too. Some have passed; some have not. Betty Shirley is still alive and kicking. Born in Jackson, Miss., Shirley is a Jazz vocalist extraordinaire, artist and teacher who made her way to Chicago, then Harlem, and, in her late 80s, to New Orleans, singing at a place called Dos Jefes.
She doesn’t have a Mississippi marker.
Other deceased blues musicians had friends or family members who remembered them. Some of these musicians were mentors to other musicians still alive, like Eden Brent of Greenville, Miss., a white woman who started playing at five years old.
We should be documenting blues musicians from the past and the present, adding women’s names to the already long list of male blues singers and musicians.
I’m no expert on Mississippi blues music. But I do know that the music created in this state—from the Delta flatlands to the northeast hills surrounding pine trees further south and blowing through the sandy beaches of the Gulf Coast—is a uniquely American music genre.
It’s time to give Mississippi women such as Albinia Jones, Betty Shirley, Eden Brent and so many others the recognition they deserve in a state where the blues began and remains.
Editor’s Note: Karen Hinton is the author of “Penis Politics: A Memoir of Women, Men & Power.” She also served as press secretary to Democratic politicians in Mississippi, Washington, D.C. and New York City. Hinton is a member of the Mississippi Free Press Advisory Board.
This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and factcheck information to [email protected]. We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.