Speech at UA ponders sexuality in blues

Cate Kennedy

The Wednesday installment of the Brown Bag Lunch Series, Bebe Barefoot’s lecture “Singing the Sexual/Textual Blues,” combined discourse on the outright sexuality exhibited by the performers of blues songs and discussion on how the performers used their sexuality to promote their feminist points of view.

Before she began her lecture, Barefoot played several clips of famous female blues singers, such as Bessie Smith, Billie Holliday, Ma Rainey, Harryette Mullen and Candye Kane.

“Notice how regal she is, how comfortable she is with her body. That’s what I want you to picture,” Barefoot said.

Barefoot said while the lyrics were blatantly sexual at times and are an important part of the blues resistance, the performance and the artist herself are also important parts of the cultural resistance.

Barefoot, a professor in the English department and New College, said she first became interested in blues feminism about 10 years ago when she was first introduced to Harryette Mullen’s poetry.

Rather than simply a poet, Barefoot discovered that Mullen considered herself to be writing in an oral tradition, more specifically, the blues oral tradition.

Beyond the feminist aspect of Mullen’s writing, Barefoot began to appreciate how Mullen intellectualized sexuality and the body, escalating them beyond the purely physical.

“Mullen’s sounds reverberate from the frontal lobes rather than from the stomach,” Barefoot said.

To truly appreciate Mullen’s works, Barefoot said that the reader has to see and hear her poetry. The meaning of several of her lines can change drastically, depending on if people see or hear them, she said.

“It is a disparity between what is written and what is heard,” Barefoot said.

One aspect of the lecture involved the concept that the textual element of blues feminism lies in the physical descriptions found in the lyrics. Physical matters become textual. Barefoot compared several of the artists, most notably Mullen and Smith, and contrasted their ways of describing their sexuality.

She said Mullen was interested in a “mythical and magical construction rather than a sensual image.” During her comparison, Barefoot read excerpts from Smith’s lyrics that she had shown earlier, apologizing for her lesser performance.

“Sorry, I’m not Bessie,” Barefoot said.

As cultural rebels, these blues artists adopted several personae throughout their careers. According to Barefoot, these masks allowed these artists to act out their fantasies. Female blues singers were always voodoo women, matriarchs, wild women, lesbians, high priestesses or earth-shakers.

Barefoot’s lecture made the audience question the face value of blues lyrics and performers and made them look deeper to fully understand the cultural rebellion these works and the performers embodied. Her lecture also tied in well with other areas of study.

“For me, it’s a really good connection because I’m in literacy,” said Alexander Parks, a doctoral student in curriculum and instruction and secondary English.