Country Queer

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Looking for a Rainbow on the Mississippi Delta: Early Queer Blues

By Cher Guevara, Staff Writer

Ma Rainey, Photo Courtesy of Smithsonian Collections

It’s funny in a way. People think queer music is some sort of new phenomenon, something that’s only popped out of the closet over the past ten, fifteen years or so. Certainly, most people can’t imagine old-time queer music. But on the recommendation of Sister Mya, I decided to snoop around and see if I could find some affirming, out, loud, and proud records from the earliest days of American blues.

I’ve long been a serious blues aficionado, first discovering the raw sounds of Robert Johnson and Son House when I was in college and just moving on from there, digging raw-souled cats like Blind Willie Johnson, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, and RL Burnside. Surely in that vast treasure trove of hard grooving blues, there had to be some brothers, sisters, or siblings.

It didn’t take long before I got a bite.

The first one that came on my radar was Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon, a vaudeville entertainer who performed for thirty years from 1910 through 1941 before retiring from show business to help out with the war effort in World War II. Jaxon was loud and flamboyant, known for his outrageous stage persona and drag performances. He worked with some of the biggest names in blues and jazz at the time, including Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway, and Duke Ellington.


A Honky-Tonk of Our Own

But his outrageousness wasn’t merely on stage as Jaxon also had an active recording career, cutting singles from 1927 through 1940 moving from Vocation Records to one of the early major labels, Decca Records. His single “Fan It” openly celebrated his sexuality and taste for pushing the boundaries of his time and place, singing out;

“If the sun’s too hot, cool it if you can
Better go out and get yourself a five cent fan
And fan it, fan it, you gotta fan it and cool it
Honey, till the cows come home…”

Today the thought of a loud, outrageous drag queen being a hot selling entertainer is mainstream, with millions of people watching the RuPaul show and cheering on their favorite competing queens. But back in the ‘20s and ‘30s, it was as outrageous as you could get. Jaxon took great personal and professional risks for his entertainment career and son-of-a-bitch, it worked. So the next time you’re at your favorite local drag dive, tell a queen that 100 years ago, it was Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon who first stomped open that gate.

Jaxon wasn’t the only queer performer to reach the heights of mainstream success in the early days of blues. Few blues performers before or since reached the stardom of Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, known as the “Mother of the Blues”. While not the first lady blues singer to be recorded (that would be Mamie Smith, who first recorded in 1920), Rainey would be the first big star. During her six year recording contract with Paramount Records, she recorded songs that would be amongst the earliest blues standards, including “See See Rider Blues”, which would go on to be covered by more than 100 artists over the following decades.

Ma Rainey also recorded one of the first lesbian anthems, the sultry and defiant “Prove It On Me Blues”.

Where she went, I don’t know
I mean to follow everywhere she goes;
Folks say I’m crooked. I didn’t know where she took it
I want the whole world to know.

They say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me
Sure got to prove it on me;
Went out last night with a crowd of my friends,
They must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men.

According to the story, the song was based on a real incident where the local pigs busted Rainey having an orgy with her chorus ladies at her Columbus, Georgia home. Decades later the song would be rediscovered during the radical lesbian movement of the ‘70s, covered famously in 1979 by folk singer Heather Bishop. 

I also discovered some queer blues artists working more in the raw country style, including Kokomo Arnold, a left-handed slide guitarist and one of the early Chicago blues artists. Arnold was born in Georgia, but moved to Chicago in 1929 where he made his living as a bootlegger. In 1933, he was discovered by Kansas Joe McCoy, which landed him a contract with Decca Records. Arnold quickly became one of the first major stars of the burgeoning Chicago sound, influencing many of his contemporaries, including the legendary Robert Johnson who would cover Arnold’s “Sweet Home Chicago”, quickly turning it into a blues standard.

Arnold is also credited with what could be called the first queer blues standard, “Sissy Man Blues”, first recorded by him in 1935. That very same year, Pinewood Tom (aka Josh White) and George Noble would record their own versions. The following year, Connie McLean’s Rhythm Boys would cut their rendition and even up to today, the song continues to be played, recorded by Americana duo Swampcandy in 2007.

While the song certainly couldn’t be called an early out, loud, and proud anthem like Rainey’s “Prove It On Me Blues”, it showed that Arnold wasn’t willing to abide by the rules of heterosexuality, with the chorus ringing out:

And I woke up this mornin’ with my pork grindin’ business in my hand
And I woke up this mornin’ with my pork grindin’ business in my hand
Lord if you can’t send me no woman, please send me some sissy man

Another bootlegging blues picker who wasn’t afraid to sing about the lavender side of life was Peg Leg Howell, a Georgia native who was most notable for bridging the country blues style with the popular 12-bar blues form. Howell made a living busking and playing juke joints before being signed to Columbia Records in 1926. He enjoyed a bit of success, but it was not to last, as he went back to bootlegging and went back to jail. By the mid-30’s, he had largely disappeared from the blues scene in Atlanta and never enjoyed the influence and success like the other artists I’ve talked about here.

However, one song he did cut that would be another milestone in early American queer music was “Fairy Blues”, released in 1928 by Columbia as the b-side to “Please Ma’am”. In my research, this has been the earliest country blues-style song that celebrates queer sexuality, predating “Sissy Man Blues” by seven years. More coded than the other songs here, the song sings of the passion Howell has for his hustling lover.

“I got a lovin’, sweet fairy, she treats me nice and kind
I got a lovin’, sweet fairy, she treats me nice and kind
She treats me so lovin’, she satisfy my mind

She may be your gal, but she tip to see me sometime
She may be your gal, but she tip to see me sometime
She sleeps with you, but she’s got me on her mind”

So what happened to the queer blues? Most of these artists ended up fading into obscurity as American music tastes shifted from the blues to swing and big band that became popular at the dawn of World War II and into the post-war era.

But if you know anything about queer folks, queer blues wouldn’t vanish. Instead, a bisexual electric guitarist from Arkansas named Sister Rosetta Tharpe would abandon the gospel music she grew up on and down in Georgia; a flamboyant boogie-woogie pianist named Richard Penniman would change his name to Little Richard. These two artists put more grit and jump into the blues and helped invent one of the most popular American music forms of all-time: rock n roll.

So stand tall and be proud my siblings! You are part of a great musical legacy in America, one that stretches all the way back to the earliest days of recorded popular music.