APRIL 1: Lucille Bogan/Bessie Jackson (1897-19…

365daysoflesbians:

Today may be April 1st, but this ain’t no joke: today is the birthday of legendary blues singer Lucille Bogan, otherwise known as Bessie Jackson.

Born in Mississippi and raised in Alabama, she got married when she was just 17, and had one son from that marriage; then later on got divorced and remarried another man with whom she had another son. She moved to LA but died shortly after of coronary sclerosis, at the age of 51, and is now buried at the Lincoln Memorial Park, in Compton, CA (her grave is apparently unmarked though). She was hailed as one of the three greats of blues music, with Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.

Her early career is mainly centered on recording vaudeville songs, though in 1923, she becomes the first black blues singer to record outside NY or Chicago – the hotspots of the (blues and jazz) music industry at the time – when she records “Pawn Shop Blues” in Atlanta. A few years later, she starts recording with Paramount, which really kicked off her career. At the time, she was known for her risqué lyrics, and many of her songs have thinly-veiled allusions to drinking, sex, and sex work. When she headed back to NY in the early thirties, she began adopting the pseudonym Bessie Jackson when she’d record songs. Walter Roland usually accompanied her on the piano; their collaboration extended to over 100 songs between 1933 and 1935. But even with the pseudonym, she didn’t necessarily tone down her lyrics: among her final recordings is the famous “Shave ‘Em Dry,” of which she recorded two takes, one explicit and the other “clean(er),” as well as “B.D. Woman’s Blues,” where B.D. stands for “bull dyke.” In the song, Lucille Bogan adopts the persona of a “bull dyke,” and sings:

Comin’ a time, B.D. women they ain’t going to need no men
Comin’ a time, B.D. women they ain’t going to need no men
‘Cause the way they treat us is a lowdown and dirty sin

B.D. women, you sure can’t understand
B.D. women, you sure can’t understand
They got a head like a sweet angel and they walk just like a natural man

B.D. women, they all done learned their plan
B.D. women, they all done learned their plan
They can lay their jive just like a natural man

B.D. women, B.D. women, you know they sure is rough
B.D. women, B.D. women, you know they sure is rough
They all drink up plenty whiskey and they sure will strut their stuff

B.D. women, you know they work and make their dough
B.D. women, you know they work and make their dough
And when they get ready to spend it, they know they have to go

(And now I think I understand why lesbians are obsessed with whiskey.)

Most music criticism categorizes her as lesbian, and she was definitely famous for including explicit lyrics about lesbianism in her songs, but since she was married twice, it’s hard to say which label – if any – she’d have liked. But those labels don’t matter that much here, actually. What does matter is that we keep on listening to her, giving her what she’s owed as one of the key figures of blues music, and remembering that she was one of the tribe.

-AK