IASPM-US Conference Preview: Cookie Woolner

by justindburton on March 8, 2012

In the coming weeks, we will be previewing several papers that will be read at the 2012 IASPM-US/POP Conference in New York. This preview is courtesy of Cookie Woolner, whose paper “‘Ethel Must Not Marry’: Black Swan Records and the Queer Classic Blues Women” is scheduled for the Black Manhattan session, 2:15-3:45 on Saturday, March 24 in KC 405. Please do not reprint without the author’s permission (cwoolner@umich.edu).

In early February 1922, The Chicago Defender, the most widely read African American newspaper of its day, ran a short announcement stating that, “Miss Alberta Hunter, of 4428 Prairie Avenue, entertained last week at dinner in honor of Miss Ethel Waters of the Black Swan Record Company. The other guests present were Miss Ethel Williams, a member of Miss Waters’ company, Miss Martha Briscoe, Miss Marguerite Ricks and Alvin Malone. All voted Miss Hunter a charming hostess.”[1. “Entertains Ethel Waters,” Chicago Defender, February 4, 1922, p.4.] This brief snippet of society news does not suggest much of note in passing, but it actually represents a very important moment in the history of American music, the history of sexuality, and African American women’s history.

Residing at 4428 Prairie Avenue in Chicago at this time with blues singer Alberta Hunter was her unmentioned girlfriend, Carrie Mae Ward, who most likely prepared the meal for the dinner party, as Alberta herself did not know how to cook.[2. Frank C. Taylor and Gerald Cook, Alberta: A Celebration in Blues, McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1987, p. 52.] Hunter was also a recording artist on the African American-run record company Black Swan’s roster, yet, as this article suggests, she was not as heralded and promoted a star on the label as was Ethel Waters – indeed, Hunter’s affiliation with the label is not even mentioned in the text, which was most likely created by Black Swan to publicize Waters. The tour that she was currently on was one of the first launched by a record company in order to promote newly released records, which was a novel and lucrative, precedent-setting idea at the time. Waters was the best-selling recording artist Black Swan currently worked with, and they wanted to take advantage of this relationship by promoting her consistently in print and on tour. Her first record for Black Swan, “Down Home Blues,” had sold over a hundred thousand copies, securing her importance to the label’s economic future.[3. “Correspondence with Harry H. Pace, Nov 17, 1939,” Roi Ottley and William J. Weatherby, Eds. The Negro in New York: An Informal Social History. New York: The New York Public Library, 1967, p. 233.]


Indeed, The Chicago Defender had also recently run an article declaring that Waters was so important to Black Swan that the company had asked her to sign a contract stipulating that she would not get married within a year.[4. Ethel Must Not Marry,” Chicago Defender, December 24, 1921, p. 7.] This was a sensationalistic and restrictive request that would likely never be made of a male singer, and yet the article stated that Waters had no problem promptly signing the agreement. This was in part because the above-mentioned Ethel Williams was not only “a member of Miss Waters’ company” but was her lover with whom she had made a home in Harlem.[5. Donald Bogle, Heat Wave: The Life and Times of Ethel Waters. New York: Harper Collins, 2011, p. 71.] Hence, this article reveals how important same-sex loving African American women were to the burgeoning recorded music industry in the early-twentieth century. These two moments – Waters’ signing of said contract and the dinner party thrown for her by Hunter – encapsulate the connections between the rise of the race records industry, the celebrity of the classic blues women, and the open secret of same-sex relationships that many of these women took part in during the 1920s. Ethel Waters, Alberta, Hunter, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and many other popular women singers at this time took part in same-sex relationships. This cohort of women performers was indeed the first generation to bring African American female same-sex desire into the public eye and the popular imagination.

Like many other women who went on to become successful recording artists, Ethel Waters got her start as a performer singing and dancing in small cabarets as well as touring on the road in vaudeville circuits. The move from performing artists to recording artists allowed the classic blues women to be heard by a much wider audience – northern and southern, white and black, urban and rural. The profits made from selling records allowed more money to be spent on print advertising and touring costs, which brought out bigger crowds in larger theaters to see these women sing their recorded hits. Before 1920, it was very rare for an African American woman to become a recording artist, but before the year had ended, everything had changed because of one record, “Crazy Blues,” sung by Mamie Smith and written by Perry Bradford, which sold in the neighborhood of a million copies.[6. Samuel Charters and Leonard Kunstadt argue that the record sold over a million copies in less than a year, but recently Adam Gussow has discredited this number, stating that this sales number is unreliable and may be combined with sales of other formats, such as sheet music and piano rolls. See Samuel Charters and Leonard Kunstadt, Jazz: A History of the New York Scene. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1962, p. 91; Adam Gussow, “‘Shoot Myself a Cop’: Mamie Smith’s ‘Crazy Blues’ as Social Text,” Callaloo. Vol. 25, No. 1 (Winter 2002), p. 40.] This in turn led to “the women’s reign” of the classic blues for most of the decade.[7. Connie Smith, “Men and Marvelous Foremothers: An Interview with Rosetta Reitz,” Fuse, Fall 1985, pp. 19-22, Rosetta Reitz Papers, Jazz Archives, Duke University.] Hundreds of African American women recorded vaudeville and minstrelsy-inflected blues songs that came to be known as “the classic blues” in the 1920s for companies such as Columbia, Paramount, Okeh, and Black Swan, among many others, altogether selling millions of copies and making millions of dollars for the recorded music industry, and forging a new segregated sector of the industry that came to be known by 1923 as “race records.”[8. The term “race records” was used throughout the 1920s and 30s and eventually came to be replaced by the category of “rhythm and blues” in the 1940s.]

The classic blues women’s success, the popularity of their records, and the mutually dependent relationships they had with the men of the industry created a unique predicament for the women among them who loved women. As the opening Chicago Defender article shows, the private lives and social lives of these celebrities were of interest to the general public, and news of their same-sex exploits travelled, particularly in entertainment circles. As Mabel Hampton, a chorus girl and contemporary of the blues women recalled of Ethel Waters and Ethel Williams, they “used to fight up and down Seventh Avenue [in Harlem] like gangbusters… Men couldn’t do nothing cause they were good…they were money makers you know.”[9. Joan Nestle interview with Mabel Hampton, n.d., p. 9, Eric Garber Papers, Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Historical Society, San Francisco.] The success of Mamie Smith with “Crazy Blues” led to an era in which African American women were in demand for their songs about love, heartbreak, and sexual desire, travel and the Great Migration, and the blues women’s artistic talents and earning ability allowed male record executives to turn the other cheek to their clients’ off-stage activities, as long as their behaviors did not damage their financial bottom line.

The story of Black Swan Records, a label begun for ideological as well as financial reasons, to promote racial uplift through the distribution of respectable, “cultural,” as well as popular music by African Americans, is a fascinating example of the intersection of the race records industry with the fight for racial justice, the rise of commercialization, and the increasing visibility of sexuality in the 1920s.[10. Ethel Waters recalls in her autobiography that there was a discussion at Black Swan over whether she should record “popular or ‘cultural’” songs, the former generally code for blues, and the latter for spirituals, opera, and more “uplifting” music associated with high culture. Waters, His Eye Is on the Sparrow, p. 141. For a discussion of the creation of the division between high and low/popular culture, see Lawrence Levine, Highbrow/ Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.] Black Swan supported and promoted Ethel Waters and Alberta Hunter at the beginning of their recording careers, during a time when both of them lived with female partners, yet their same-sex desires and behavior seem to be have been rarely discussed (in print, at least) by the men within the industry; indeed, it was not until 1929 that the word “lesbian” was even published in an African American newspaper, and it was then used to decry a surplus of this type of female theatrical performer.[11. See: S.T. Whitney, “Watch Your Step!” The New York Amsterdam News, December 4, 1929, p. 9.] However, as many of their fellow singers, performers, musicians, and friends knew of their same-sex relationships, it seems likely that men in the music industry knew of them as well but generally tried to ignore them.[12. The concept of lesbianism became more visible in American culture in the 1920s but it was generally not deemed a subject respectable people discussed in public. As the entertainment industry newspaper Variety wrote in 1926 on this subject, “‘Ladies’ of this character are commonly referred to as Lesbians. Greenwich Village is full of them, but it is not a matter for household discussion or even mention. There are millions of women, sedate in nature, who never heard of a Lesbian, much less believing that such people exist. And many men, too.” “The Captive,” Variety, October 6, 1926, p. 80.] This may be even more likely with Black Swan, as the company was not merely a commercial operation, eager to make money off of prurient blues songs as white-run companies were, but one that sought to connect African Americans with “higher,” more spiritual music and ideologies in the name of the betterment of the race and economic autonomy. Sexual liberation was not conducive with the fight for racial justice at this time, despite the loosening of sexual morals associated with the 1920s, placing the many classic blues singing women who loved women in a difficult position from which to maneuver. They nonetheless used double entendres and playful performativity to acknowledge the open secret of their desires, while reminding their audiences that it “tain’t nobody’s business” if they did, as Bessie Smith sang, borrowing the words of yet another queer African American, songwriter Porter Grainger.[13. Porter Grainer, “Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” recorded by Bessie Smith in 1923 for Columbia Records.]


Cookie Woolner is a Ph.D. candidate in History and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan. She is currently a Martin Duberman Visiting Scholar at the New York Public Library. Her dissertation is entitled, The Famous Lady Lovers: Race, Sexuality and the Entertainment Industry in the World of the Classic Blues Women, 1890-1940.

Donald Bogle, Heat Wave: The Life and Times of Ethel Waters. New York: Harper Collins, 2011, p. 71.


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