Music | Africana Studies
2023 Muriel Hassenfeld Mann Premium
Music Capstone Project:
“Wandering Women: Sonic Fabulations of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey”
Wandering Women: Sonic Fabulations on Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey is a work-in-progress project that explores themes within the lives and works of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. Taking inspiration from Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, this project is one attempt at imagining what sonic and musical fabulation could sound like.
The project and first track title, “Wandering Women,” speaks to the prominence of travel, specifically by train, in both Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey’s lives. As some of the first professional Black musicians in American history, Smith and Rainey’s ability to perform across the country forged an important, symbolic identity for Black, working-class women at the time; one of independence, sexual and romantic agency, and honesty. Furthermore, as musicians that hailed from the South, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith frequently sang about longing to journey home. As a result, Black, Southern migrants who traveled north during the late 19th and early 20th century could identify with Smith and Rainey’s longing for home and championed these artists as cultural representations of the Black American South.
The second track, titled “Struttin’ Shoes” was inspired by the romantic honesty and independence featured in Smith and Rainey’s music, and their lost comedic performances. While these artists are remembered for being blues singers, they would often act, dance, and perform skits during their shows. All that’s left of these performances are newspaper clippings and two short dialogue introductions in Ma Rainey’s “Gone Daddy Blues” and Bessie Smith’s “Sam Jones Blues.” This piece uses these introductions as a starting point from which to imagine the live performances we can’t experience.