When Denise LaSalle died in January 2018, I felt her death more viscerally than most in recent memory. I did not know her personally. I knew her through her songs. I heard these songs, along with Koko Taylor’s and Betty Wright’s, when I stood behind the counter of the jook joint that my father ran in Natchez, MS. When I got older, I took the memory of those songs, and the bold and audacious women that these women sang about, with me into my adult life. I cut my academic teeth writing about blues women in music and African American literature, but unlike the writers or other blues singers who I wrote about, like me, LaSalle was a native Mississippian. LaSalle was part of the soundtrack to my childhood, so it is with fond memories that I think back on LaSalle’s life and legacy.
Probably most well known for her 1971 hit “Trapped by a Thing Called Love,” Denise LaSalle, was born Ora Denise Allen on a small plantation in Sidon, Mississippi. She grew up and spent most of her young life in the neighboring town of Belzoni. After moving to Chicago at 13, she briefly sang with a gospel group, The Sacred Five. Eventually she would adopt the name LaSalle from a French character in a comic strip. In addition to releasing multiple studio albums and recording gospel, country, and blues hits, LaSalle founded the National Association for the Preservation of the Blues in 1986. She would die in Jackson, Tennessee on January 8, 2018. 1
The blues woman is an essential member of African American communities post slavery because she is a constant reminder of the importance of freedom.
My academic interest in blues women lies in what I believe to be Denise LaSalle’s unique performance of agency, seemingly unconcerned with social convention. For me, the blues woman persona represents an important revision and rejection of the “Jody” persona popular in many songs by contemporary male blues artists. 2 The lexical origins of Jody suggest that because black soldiers in WWII were concerned about Joe the (which sounds like D) Grinder, sleeping with their wives and girlfriends while they were at war, the mythical Joe D/Jody has been a mainstay of blues ever since. 3 In addition to rejecting the Jody persona, blues women’s performances articulate a progressive sexual politics. Rather than being social pariahs as they are often depicted, because of their agency and sexual and financial freedom, the blues woman is an invaluable member of her community and an important model for young women.
LaSalle was part of the soundtrack to my childhood, so it is with fond memories that I think back on LaSalle’s life and legacy.
For those unfamiliar with the figure of the bad or blues woman, she is a ubiquitous figure in African American culture. Alice Walker’s Shug Avery, from her 1982 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Color Purple embodies the spirit of this woman. She might be best described as a character type who “is unguided by conventional norms set by the family, church or community. Almost always, [she…] is characterized by her robust sexuality, moral indifference, braggadocio persona, and/or fierce independence.” 4 Known alternatively as a bad woman, or by more recent terms such as Queen B or Queen Bitch, the blues woman inspires both admiration and disgust. Hazel Ervin observes that “[Much like the expression ‘bad man’], the term ‘bad woman’ connotes a sense of communal admiration for the female’s independence and humanizing courage to defy and/or to resist the patriarchy and cultural notions of womanhood.” Definitions and cultural models of the bad woman almost always include Bessie Smith, Empress of the Blues, who in the 1920s became the quintessential model of the “bad woman”due to the innuendo and in some cases, sexual aggression in her lyrics. 5
Rather than being social pariahs as they are often depicted, because of their agency and sexual and financial freedom, the blues woman is an invaluable member of her community and an important model for young women.
Perhaps the most obvious way blues women’s songs express a progressive sexual politics is through their cavalier attitude towards sex. Angela Davis observes that what is distinctive about the blues “in relation to other popular forms of the 1920s and 1930s is their intellectual independence and representational freedom. One of the most obvious ways in which blues lyrics deviated from that era’s established popular musical culture was their provocative and pervasive sexual […] imagery.” 6 Inasmuch as songs such as Bessie Smith’s “Young Woman’s Blues” seemingly celebrate promiscuity, they also attest to the shifting cultural dynamic created by the women’s liberation movement. These early blues women laid the foundation for the Denise LaSalles and Betty Wrights who would come along after them.
A cursory examination of the lyrics to contemporary blues and soul songs popular during the 1970’s and the 1980’s is revealing. The exploits of the blues woman suggest that she is extremely introspective and thus, she adheres to a moral code that others may not understand, Yet the blues woman, whose musical iteration is frequently the “other woman,” is steadfastly committed to helping out her fellow sisters, even the ones whose husbands she has slept with. Although just about any song from LaSalle’s discography would be instructive, I want to briefly explore one track by LaSalle at length.
Denise LaSalle’s narrator in her 1984, “Your Husband is Cheating on Us” provides an excellent example of how blues women attempt to enlighten other women. The jilted lover of the song exclaims:
The lies he used to tell you
I know them all too well
But now he’s lying to me girl
And that’s why I’m gonna tell
[…]He’s got too many women
Now somebody’s got to go
But before I bow out gracefully
I’ll tell everything I know.
[…] He’s lying to me, he’s lying to you
It won’t be too long before he’s lying to her too
Hey, lady, your husband is cheatin on us
I know you thought you had a good man
Thought you had a man that you could trust 7
In the song, the other woman has no compulsion about sleeping with someone’s husband; however, she balks at the idea of sleeping with a whorish man (i.e. Jody)--a man who is sleeping with numerous women.
While it is conceivable that this hesitation at sharing a man arises from jealousy, more likely she resists the idea of being one of many “other women” for financial reasons. In “Badd-Nasty: Tricking the Tropes of the Bad Man/Nigga and Queen B(?),” L.H. Stallings provides a plausible explanation for why this might be. She observes, “Despite the empowering uses of the erotic and female sexuality as discussed by [Audre] Lorde […], Black women understand that self-love and philosophical gains don’t pay the bills.” She further expands:
With the politicization of sexual identity, sexual desire also becomes work. Queen B(?) figures exemplify that if Black women remember the shifting between sex as work and sex as play, they can create sustaining representations of the self that won’t limit metaphysical and material possibilities. 8
Though Stallings is speaking of a more recent phenomenon, her observations about the Queen B’s sex as work/play philosophy are relevant to the blues women in these songs. These women suggest that while it is one thing to share a man and his money with his wife, it is an entirely different matter to be expected to sit idly while a man takes on numerous lovers who would supplant their income. Such an interpretation reveals both a progressive attitude towards sex and more importantly, a shrewd head when it comes to financial matters. What better message for young women than to remind them that while it is okay to take a lover, don’t ever forget the necessity of financial independence, even if it is at your lover’s expense.
Yet the blues woman, whose musical iteration is frequently the “other woman,” is steadfastly committed to helping out her fellow sisters, even the ones whose husbands she has slept with.
It is also possible that the blues woman has ethical reasons for exposing the affair. Such songs present women faced with complex moral dilemmas, but they ultimately decide to expose their affair with a married man. Why might this fictional woman risk being vilified, harassed, or even harmed? The lines “The lies he used to tell/I know them all too well/But now he’s lying to me/And that’s why I’m gonna tell” imply that an essential part of the blues woman’s mission is to expose the married woman to her husband’s infidelities, which effectively free those women to seek retribution. They might decide to divorce or leave their husbands, but more likely, getting even might simply involve the wife seeking a paramour of her own. Although none of these scenarios might come to fruition, the telling and exposing of truths is important because it levels the playing field for the wife. Having the affair might indicate immorality, but having the affair and talking about it suggests a neutral position and rather than being vindictive, as many would argue, I view the blues woman’s actions as redemptive. After all, she has already fornicated, committed adultery, coveted another woman’s husband, and perhaps many other “sins,” but she seems to not want to compound these sins, to not add insult to injury, by continuing to allow another woman to be duped by a “no good man.” The wife now has the same opportunity to seek sexual satisfaction that the husband sought and in this way she has become the ultimate teacher. The message is don’t get mad, get even.
Although other groups used music as an outlet for their anxieties or to express their idealism about sex and love, post slavery blues was especially liberatory because sexual freedom represented freedom of choice and other social freedoms as well.
The blues woman is an essential member of African American communities post slavery because she is a constant reminder of the importance of freedom. Though spirituals largely articulated the worldview of blacks during slavery, there was a definite shift after emancipation. Because many of their aspirations and hopes were never actualized, “blues created a discourse that represented freedom in more immediate and accessible terms.” 9 Although other groups used music as an outlet for their anxieties or to express their idealism about sex and love, post slavery blues was especially liberatory because sexual freedom represented freedom of choice and other social freedoms as well. Moreover, because the material condition for blacks was relatively unaffected, one of the major changes that occurred post slavery was the right to sexual choice. It was “striking the way the blues registered sexuality as a tangible expression of freedom.” 10 As much as readers or listeners might question the sexual politics of such women, it is impossible to deny the importance that they have the right to choose. Given that during slavery the bonds of passion and love were tenuous, the significance of articulating ownership of one’s own body and right to choose a lover(s) cannot be overstated.
What better message for young women than to remind them that while it is okay to take a lover, don’t ever forget the necessity of financial independence, even if it is at your lover’s expense.
Though important, the blues woman’s nonconformity is not without its complications. A cursory examination of LaSalle and other blues women’s lyrics would suggest that the blues woman has the morals of an alley cat, but a careful reconsideration of the blues woman’s actions is essential to challenge patriarchal privilege, ideas about appropriate sexuality, and so forth. The blueswoman is one who, to use the vernacular, seems to give no fucks, but why should she? Black women have too often repressed their desire for self-care and sexual satisfaction to meet the demands of family and community. Yet, both family and community can and should embrace LaSalle’s lyrics because not only does LaSalle’s “other woman” exhibit moral agency, she also attempts to elevate her sister to the same level of autonomy. LaSalle once explained that when she worked in night clubs, women would bring their problems to her saying, “so I’ve become Dear Abby for these people. I get a story out of what she’s saying, and put myself in that situation and what would I do about this man or this situation. And I write a song about it.” 1 LaSalle’s ability to create memorable lessons from other women’s pain is just one of the vital functions that she, and other blues women, serve within their communities.
- ^ “Denise LaSalle Biography,” IMDB, Accessed June 10, 2018. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm2360667/bio
- ^ Johnnie Taylor’s 1970’s “Jody Got Your Girl and Gone”, 1977’s “Standing in for Jody", and B.B. King’s 1988 “Lay Another Log on The Fire,” among others.
- ^ “Who is He and What Is He To You,” WFMU’s Beware of the Blog: A Radio Station That Bites Back, February 9, 2008 (8:56 a.m.), http://blog.wfmu.org/freeform/2008/02/who-is-he-and-w.html
- ^ Ervin, Hazel Arnett. The Handbook of African American Literature. University of Florida Press, 2004, 30-31.
- ^ Ibid.
- ^ Davis, Angela. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. New York: Pantheon Books, 1998, 3.
- ^ LaSalle, Denise. “Hey Lady, Your Husband is Cheating on Us.”
- ^ Stallings, L.H. Mutha’ is half a word: intersections of folklore, vernacular, myth, and queerness in black female culture. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2007, 33-34.
- ^ Davis, Angela. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. New York: Pantheon Books, 1998, 7.
- ^ Ibid., 8.
- ^ “Denise LaSalle Biography,” IMDB, Accessed June 10, 2018. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm2360667/bio