Directed by Robert Philpson, the short documentary T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness: Queer Blues Divas of the 1920s, will be featured next month at the Pan African Film Festival. The doc explores the private sexual lives of lesbian and bisexual “blues divas” in the 1920’s, a time when the subject was even more taboo than it is today, and how these women created “a space for themselves”, as they struggled with the alienation faced from society.
Here’s the full synopsis:
“T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness” excavates the hidden sexualities of Black female entertainers who reigned over the nascent blues recording industry of the 1920s. Unlike the male-dominated jazz scene, early blues provided a space for women to take the lead and model an autonomy that was remarkable for women of any color or sexual orientation. The fact that some of these women, still famous 90 years later, successfully conducted same-sex relations with friends and working partners is a tribute to their independent spirit and a marker of the relaxed mores that shaped the world of Black entertainment.
Ma Rainey, “Mother of the Blues,” recruited a devoted following touring the vaudeville circuit in the deep South and along the Mississippi River. Jazz historian Chris Albertson reveals the result of her partying with her chorines in Chicago, where she also recorded almost 100 sides. A true original, Ma Rainey wrote and recorded several songs about sissy men and mannish women—not all of them derogatory.
The most famous blues artist of her day, Bessie Smith, was a sexual predator to both men and women. Her affair with Lillian Simpson, a dancer in her show, triggered one of the greatest fights in Smith’s violence- soaked marriage to Jack Gee. Renowned Bay Area vocalist, Linda Tillery, talks about the inspiration Bessie provided for her life and music.
Chris Albertson confirms the lesbianism of Alberta Hunter and Ethel Waters, an early blues singer who later earned stardom as a headliner on Broadway and as a Hollywood actor. And, finally, “T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness,” resurrects the reputation of Gladys Bentley, a Harlem nightclub singer famous in her day for wearing a tuxedo and boasting of her affairs with other women.
Cultural historian Brian Keizer puts the early blues scene in its social context, pointing out that these women, alienated from mainstream society by race and cultural practice (the blues being regarded as the devil’s music), created a space for themselves that presaged the freedom later claimed by the civil rights movement and, by example, gay liberation.
Taking its title from a popular song of the day (written by gay musician Porter Grainger), “T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness” introduces contemporary audiences to the transgressive practices of the distaff side of the early blues. It wasn’t all about cheatin’ men and low times. To quote from the song, “If I go to church on Sunday/Then shimmy down on Monday/T’ain’t nobody’s bizness if I do.”
Watch the trailer below and the opening sequence underneath it.