Performing Despite Prejudice: Female Musicians in the Early 1900s and in The Color Purple
During the early 1900s, an emergence of new forms of music such as blues and jazz brought a host of new musicians, many of them female. These female performers, even when wildly successful, were constantly subjected to unfair scrutiny and judgement due to their sex, and at times also due to their race. Examples of the trials and tribulations that female musicians during this time had to face can be seen through the characters of Shug and Mary Agnes in The Color Purple by Alice Walker.
The Color Purple follows Celie, a poor but resilient woman in an unhappy marriage in the South who falls in love with Shug Avery, the beautiful folk singer and ex lover of Celie’s husband. Throughout the novel, Shug has a very lucrative and successful musical career and inspires another woman in the book, Mary Agnes, to attempt a career in singing as well. However, even as Shug becomes more successful, she is continually seen as attractive before talented, while Mary Agnes is also evaluated for her appearance more than her ability to sing. Female musicians in the early 1900s were forced to overcome sexism, racism and the unfair reality of being viewed in terms of their appearance rather than their talent, which were issues that they commonly integrated into their music. An understanding of the difficulties that female singers had to cope with during this time and the issues that they normally included in their songs further illuminates how Shug and Mary Agnes channeled their frustration from constantly being judged and evaluated on their looks and race into their music.
In order to prove their worth as musicians, female performers not only had to establish their talent, but also demonstrate good looks and sex appeal. Before jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald had achieved mass fame, she booked an audition with Chick Webb, drummer and bandleader of the Chick Webb Band (Stone 41). When Ella was presented to him, Webb refused to hear her sing, as she looked extremely disheveled from having lived on the streets for years (42). However, when others finally convinced him to give her a chance, Ella impressed the crowd at a local club, the Savoy, and within two weeks, she was not only working for Webb, but had also found a manager. Despite the fact that Ella was talented, Webb did not feel as if she would be successful as a performer, because as a woman, her appearance, which was not up to par, was just as important as her singing abilities (45). Many other female musicians were also valued for their looks rather than their talent. Vibraphonist Marjorie Hyams, famous in the 1940s, realizes the injustices she had to face in this regard as she looks back on her time as a performer (Dahl 79). Hyams recalls that as a female musician “you weren’t really looked upon as a musician” because “there was more interest in what you were going to wear” than how you performed (qtd. in Dahl 79). Hyam’s candid interpretation of the qualities necessary to be a successful female musician illustrate the stereotypical gender expectations that these performers had to circumvent at the time (Dahl 79). Blues singer Mamie Smith’s experiences concur with Hyams, as she notes that when she was starting to perform and customers would put money for her on the table, she was told to pick it up “not with your hands but with your thighs” (qtd. in Dahl 119). The suggestions given to Smith to oversexualize her every action demonstrate that an important component of gaining attention from the audience was an open display of sensuality (Dahl 119). The struggles that Fitzgerald, Hyams, and Smith faced to succeed in the music business convey how women were seen as beautiful or sexual before they were seen as talented.
The necessity women musicians felt to keep up appearances in order to gain work explains Shug’s constant attempts to look beautiful even in dire situations. The first image that the readers receive of Shug appears on a poster for a concert she is giving, and Celie describes her as “standing upside a piano, elbow crook, hand on her hip” (Walker, 25). Celie also notes that Shug appears as if “nothing seem to be troubling her mind” (25). Just as people took more interest in what Marjorie Hyams was going to wear or Smith’s sexual actions than what they sang, Celie’s depiction of Shug, which also represents the ideas of the general public, notes that Shug is not just a performer, but also a beautiful, carefree woman. Celie’s observations also reveal the importance of these qualities for female musicians in order to gain attention from potential audiences. Similarly, when Celie first meets Shug, she is coming home from her tour and is extremely sick. Celie notes that Shug “look so stylish,” but on closer inspection realizes that she has “all this yellow powder caked up on her face” and is also wearing “red rouge” lipstick (45). Similarly to how Fitzgerald’s managers expected her to look put together despite being homeless, even when Shug is on the brink of death, she is forced to keep up appearances as a performer by attempting to dress in a “stylish” manner and wear “powder” and “rouge” so that potential audiences will still approve of her. Celie’s evaluations of Shug’s appearance sheds light on the necessity for female musicians to appear attractive at all times.
African American women who hoped to become successful artists had an even more difficult time than white women, as not only did they have to defy gender stereotypes but also deal with a racist industry as well as the low socioeconomic status that normally came from being black during this time. At the beginning of her career, Ella Fitzgerald was not only poor as many African Americans were during this time, but was a homeless teenager who either relied on strangers or a deserted movie theatre for both food and shelter (Stone 35). Homelessness was not the only problem that Fitzgerald was struggling with, however. Even after she had successes, Fitzgerald still felt the need to conceal her way of speaking, and tried to improve her diction when singing to hide the fact that she had never been educated because her family could not afford for her to go to school (Stone 157). Fitzgerald’s emergence from poverty as well as her insecurities about her speech demonstrate the added difficulties that black performers had to face.
The additional struggles that African American musicians had to endure can be seen in the comparison between Shug and Mary Agnes, for while Shug’s dark skin sometimes hinders her ability to connect with an audience, Mary Agnes’s part white status allows her to have better opportunities as a musician. When Shug and her husband Grady discuss Mary Agnes’s possible music career, Mary Agnes admits that she feels as if no one would want to hear her sing. Shug contradicts her, and replies that if “you dress Mary Agnes up the right way” she would make “pisspots of money” (Walker 116). She then adds that Mary Agnes’s “stringy hair and cloudy eyes” combined with her “yellow”complexion would make the men “crazy about her” (116). Shug’s notion that Mary Agnes could make “pisspots of money” just from being dressed up “the right way” indicates that being part white allows Mary Agnes to make money while Shug, like Fitzgerald, cannot benefit from the same financial opportunities. While being part white benefited Mary Agnes, being African American could complicate Shug’s career. When Celie offers to accompany Shug on her tour, Shug turns her down. Celie then speculates that while Shug “can act like she not bored in front of a audience of strangers,” especially when “a lot of them white,” she would never “have the nerve to try and act” while Celie was around (211). Celie’s thought that Shug must “act like she not bored” when she’s in front of a mostly “white” audience suggests that this audience is not giving her a good response because of Shug’s race. Similarly, Celie’s idea that Shug must “act” in front of this audience concurs with how Fitzgerald covered her way of speaking, and implies that Shug would not feel comfortable being herself around a white audience, a problem that Mary Agnes would not have to face. Mary Agnes’s ability to impress audiences based on the way that she looks in contrast with Shug’s unresponsive crowd suggests that being African American can hinder musicians from connecting with an audience.
Many female musicians at the time channeled the frustration they felt due to their unfair circumstances into music. Ida Cox, a famous blues singer during the 1920s, focused her lyrics on the pain she was feeling about different struggles in her life. “Western Union Blues,” a song she wrote during her ascent to fame, depicts the rejected women trying to find work, while “Tree Top Tall Papa,” another one of her hits, laments one of her unfaithful lovers (Dahl 106). On the same note, many African American artists such as Billie Holiday used their music to illustrate the pain they felt from the racism they received (May 68). In response to her unfair treatment as well as the unfair treatment of African Americans throughout the country, Holiday wrote “Strange Fruit,” a song which depicted the lynchings happening in the South. (Miller) The lyrics to the song, which include the graphic images of “blood on the leaves and blood at the root” of trees as well as “Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze” portray the unjust results of racism in America (Miller 73). Both Cox and Holiday’s lyrics express the sadness they feel over the different struggles in their lives.
The therapeutic aspect of songwriting for female musicians sheds light on the music that Shug and Mary Agnes choose to sing. When Shug first performs at Harpo’s juke joint, Celie recalls that she sang A Good Man is Hard to Find “by somebody name Bessie Smith,” (72) and when Shug sings, “she look over at Mr. ___” (73). Shug’s glances at Mr. ___ while singing a song about the struggle of finding a nice man indicate that she can relate to Bessie’s frustrations, because Shug never got to marry Mr.___ even though she was in love with him. Similarly to Cox, Shug finds solace in singing music that expresses her frustrations. Mary Agnes also articulates her pain in her music, and like Billie Holiday, Mary Agnes expresses the angst she feels about her race. After Mary Agnes gets raped by her white uncle, she begins to think about the complexities of her being mixed raced, so she then writes a song to express her confusion and pain. One line, “They calls me yellow like yellow be my name” (99) alludes to how she feels defined by her “yellow” coloring rather than who she really is. Another lyric, “But if yellow is a name why ain’t black the same” (99) expresses Mary Agnes’ confusion as to why she is defined by her skin color, but all the other people she knows, such as Shug and Celie, are not defined by being black. Both Shug and Mary Agnes find ways to express their feelings through their music. Shug and Mary Agnes’ encounters with sexism and racism on their path to musical fame mirror the struggle of so many other female artists of their time as well as illustrate that although the early 1900s are considered to be a time of positive changes for women, many old ideas and stereotypes have not changed as much as they are believed to. Despite these unfair circumstances, many women at this time were able to circumvent these challenges and achieve success in the music industry. Shug and Mary Agnes embody these women and illustrate that achievement is possible even in the face of great adversity.
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