We all know that different kinds of music can make us feel different kinds of feelings. But how do musicians use sound to create different moods and emotions? In this episode we’ll explore how the Blues queens of the 1920s used musical affect to express themselves and stand up for Black women. Singer-songwriter Sonya Jevette show us how to use musical affect in songs, and helps us understand what it means to be a feminist today.


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*Sonya plays one-minute song*

Cristina (C): Hello and welcome to the very first episode of Reflective Rhythms! I’m Cristina Saltos, I’m a musicologist, which means I study how humans make music, why humans make music, and how human music-making has changed over time. We’ve just heard Austin-based singer-songwriter Sonya Jevette. Sonya, how are you today?

Sonya (S): Spectacular, thanks for having me Cristina

C: Thank you for coming! So, can you tell us a little bit about the song you just wrote and what it’s about?

S: When I was a youngster growing up there were no superheroes who looked like me, so I wrote a song about being a superhero.

C: Cool. What kind of superhero are you trying to portray in the song?

S: Positive. Uplifting, advocate of music, of artists, of singer-songwriters.

C: What are…are there certain musical tools you use to make people feel when they hear that song?

S: Relaxed, chill, uplifted.

C: Are there some musical tools you use to help people feel that way?

S: Chord progression, beat, rhythm, intonation, timbre. All of that makes a difference in creating songs.

C: Hmm, it sounds like what Sonya is using is *sound effect* musical affect—which is what we’re going to be talking about today. Musical affect is the feelings, emotions, and moods that music creates for its audience members. Today, we’re going to talk about some other women who have used musical affect to help convey musical meaning and help people feel things—the blues queens of the 1920s! Now Sonya, have you heard of the blues before?

S: Absolutely.

C: Absolutely. Yeah, me too. It’s been around for a long time and it’s a very famous genre Today we’re going to use a little tiny definition because we don’t have that much time. But for today we’re going to define the blues as a style of music that has been around for a very long time that is a combination of African American work songs, spirituals, and African and US string traditions. And the blues has influenced a lot of musical traditions in the United States, including rock n’ roll, R&B, and even hip-hop.

Now, you may have even heard of some blues singers or blues artists. I can think of some, maybe B.B. King, Muddy Waters. Is there anyone you’ve heard of Sonya?

S: Music wise, blues style I’m gonna go with some Bessie Smith, go with some Etta James, some Nina Simone. Can’t think of her name right now—guitar player, blues singer…

C: There’s a lot of them! And something that we don’t talk about is that Black women were really, really important in putting the blues on the map. You see, before 1920 the blues had been heard by people through publications—meaning printed music that could be bought to be played at home, and the Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA), which was an organization that hired lots of artists, including Black folks to travel all around the South, Midwest, and Northeast sharing their music. While Black women did perform on the TOBA, they were super important to the next step in blues history—recording. In fact, it was blues woman Mamie Smith that is responsible for “Crazy Blues,” the first blues song ever recorded. Mamie Smith recorded this blues cover in 1920. Sonya, can you guess how many copies it sold?

S: A hundred

C: Higher!

S: A hundred and fifty

C: Higher!

S: A thousand

C: Do you give up?

S: Yes

C: It sold 75,000 copies just in the first month! When record companies found out, they started hiring lots of Black women to record blues records. Two of the most famous artists were Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, and Bessie Smith. They were so good at singing the blues that they earned some really awesome nicknames too. Ma Rainey is still known today as the “Mother of the Blues,” and Bessie Smith is also known as “The Empress of the Blues.”  Both Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith had started singing and performing when they were 12 years old, supporting themselves and becoming great artists through lots and lots of practice. Much like Sonya and I can tell you, becoming a good artist takes lots and lots of practice. While these women had a lot of fun singing the blues, they faced challenges because of their identities as Black women. You see, although in the early 1900s Black folks were no longer enslaved and finally had the human rights to marry and love who they wanted, go to school, and travel, there were some people who still weren’t okay with that and made it difficult for Black folks to live, work, and even vote, especially in the south. Because of this, lots of Black folks had to move to around a lot to look for work. This was especially hard on women, who were expected to take care of the house and raise babies. Because of this, a lot of people had to move around a lot and it was hard to keep families together, leading to lots of people splitting up.

While Blues women did sing about these experiences, they also used their music to do something really cool: empower other Black women! Lots of their lyrics—or the words they used in their songs—challenged the idea that women had to stay home, clean, and take care of babies. While there is nothing wrong with doing those things or wanting to do those things, the blues women wanted to talk about the fact that it was okay for women to be independent, do things that people thought men should do, and stand up for themselves. We can see how they used words to stand up for themselves in this Bessie Smith example called “Sam Jones Blues.” Here she talks about how a man wasn’t very nice to his wife and wants to come back to her. Here is the response she used in the song:

I used to be your lofty mate

But the judge done changed my fate

Was a time you could have walked right in and called this place your home sweet home

But now it’s all mine for all time, I’m free and living all alone

Way to stand up for yourself Bessie! These women not only used their words, but they also used *sound effect* affect. Some of the ways they did this was through inflection, which is the way someone says something, improvisation which is making something up on the spot, and performativity which is the way you sing or play something. These women often funny, using their humor, used irony which is using opposite words to express something, and satire poking fun at certain qualities to make a point to express their viewpoints and talk about their experiences as Black women in the United States. We’ve included a Ma Rainey example on the website if you wanna test out your listening ears! By using musical affect, Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey were able to connect with their audiences and help Black folks feel connected to each other and their culture, whether they were in the North or the South.

Now there’s something that two really smart scholars named Angela Davis and Daphne Duvall Harrison figured out about why these two women were important. They figured out that these women were not only incredible blues singers but great feminists, using their talent and privilege to talk about their experiences and lift up other people, especially Black women.

Now Sonya, have you heard this term “feminist” before?

SJ: Yes

CS: Is it just me, or does it feel like kind of a confusing word? We hear it on the news and on tv…

SJ: It’s very confusing.

Well for this episode I did some research and I found out that In a nutshell—which is kind of a basic definition—that feminism is an umbrella term that covers multiple groups of people who work for the political, social, and economic equality between men and women. What has been figured out over time, however, is that there is no universal female experience, and that women are treated differently because of their race, how much money they make or their family makes (class), and who they fall in love with and are attracted to, known as their sexuality. Because of this, we have different kinds of feminism to talk about these different experiences. Angela Davis and Daphne Duvall Harrison have talked about how Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith are connected to the tradition of Black feminism. Because they lived a long time ago and traditions change over time, these artists don’t fit perfectly into the what we think of as Black Feminism today. They do, however, connect to Black feminist epistemology. To borrow from the definition of scholar and Black feminist Patricia Hill-Collins, an *sound effect* epistemology is a core set of beliefs that shape why people believe what they believe to be true and the tools and ideas they use to investigate the world around them. Patricia Hill-Collins points to lived experience, dialogue—which means talking to one another–caring, and personal accountability—which means being responsible for oneself– as being essential to black feminist epistemology. And Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey embodied those ideas! Both artists used their music to talk about their experiences, communicate with others, and uplift other Black women.

Now here’s something else I figured out Sonya. Do you know what the research told me?

SJ: Tell me

CS: You don’t have to be a woman to be a feminist! Isn’t that awesome?

SJ: That’s mind blowing.

CS: Men can be feminists, women can be feminists, or people who don’t identify as a woman or a man can be feminists. A big part of being a feminist means listening to women, believing them, and asking what we can do to help them. And that includes listening to all kinds of women! There are all sorts of feminisms—we’ve included resources on the website for grown ups and kids to learn more about all of these different viewpoints and ideas. Now today we have a very special treat—Sonya is going to show us how to use affect and write a song! Where should we start Sonya?

SJ: We should start by using a letter from your name.

CS: Oh, is that to establish *sound effect* the key?

SJ: That is correct. And because your name is Cristina—

CS: We’re going to use C

SJ: Yes

CS: I see. Now we’re not talking about the key you put in a door to unlock it. A key in music is what helps us figure out what notes we’re going to use. Kind of like when a painter uses a palette, they choose certain colors to mix together.

SJ: We’ll just use a C chord, an F chord, and a G chord *Plays chords while naming them*

CS: That’s a good question—do we want to make this song happy or sad?

SJ: That’s right. So from that list you had about feminists…

CS: Yes, we decided to write a song about feminism today, and Sonya asked me to come up with some words and ideas around that term. So that’s what we’re working with for some of the words today.

SJ: So, accessibility, advocacy, and empathy. *Plays chords with words* A whole phrase for a song, right? But we could also have it in Blues format. Accessibility, advocacy, empathy. So what feel do you want the song to be in? *plays blues riffs* And how fast do you want the song to go? Do you want it to be slow, like a little old man, or do you want it to be fast like a toddler jumping all around? *Plays chords*

CS: So we’re talking about tempo, which is how fast we’re going, and what style we want to use. Should we stay in the blues style since we’re talking about the blues queens?

SJ: I would stay in the blues style. Do you have the words with you?

CS: We said accessibility, empathy…we’re gonna improvise our inflections, ok! You’re welcome to sing along with us if you’re listening!

SJ: That’s right

CS: Maybe we should do two verses and do them both two times so  everyone can do them with us?

SJ: Sounds good.

CS: Okay.

*Sonya starts chord progressions*

CS: *Singing* Accessibility, accessibliiity. Invite your friends, include their thoughts. Accessibility, accessibility. Invite your friends and include their thoughts. We’re gonna do one more! Empathy, empathy. Listen, learn, and receive. One more time now! Empathy, empathy. Listen, learn, and receive.

C: Yeah! Sonya, thank you so much for showing us how to use affect in a song. If you want to learn more about Sonya and her music you can find her at sonyajevette.com. That’s s-o-n-y-a-j-e-v-e-t-t-e. She is with those same names on Facebook, spotify, Instagram, and twitter.

Before we go we’d also like to thank our financial sponsors, the University of Texas Austin through their Rainwater Innovation Grant and the University of Texas’s Fine Arts Diversity Committee. And also we’d so like to thank YOU for listening today! If there’s anything else you want to know or learn about, let us know on the website. We’ll see you next time!

In this episode we talked about how there are different kinds of feminisms and the importance of honoring each woman’s unique experiences. What do the women in these books have in common? How are they different? What are some ideas you have to support these women and celebrate their unique personalities?

Are there things about this episode that you found especially cool? Are there any you tried out on your own? Please let us know!


Works Cited

Davis, Angela Y. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism. New York: Random House, 1998.

Harris, Sheldon. Blues Who’s Who: A Biographical Dictionary of Blues Singers. New Rochelle,  NY: Arlington House Publishers, 1979.

Harrison, Daphne Duval. Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s. New Brunswick, NJ;  London: Rutgers University Press, 1988.

Hill Collins, Patricia. Black Feminist Thought. Oxford; New York: Routledge, 2014.

Merriam-Webster, s.v. “Feminism.” Accessed January 14, 2020. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/feminism

Oliver, Paul. “Rainey, Ma.” In Grove Music Online, 2001. Accessed 14, 2020. https://doi.org.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.50130

—————. “Smith, Bessie.” In Grove Music Online, 2001. Accessed January 14, 2020. https://doi.org.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.26000

Schrupp, Patu/Antje. A brief history of feminism. Translated by Sophie Lewis. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017.

Sloboda, John. “Affect.” Section III of “Psychology of Music.” In Grove Music Online, 2001. https://www-oxfordmusiconline-com.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu:2444/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo        9781561592630-e-0000042574

Wald, Elijah. “Blues.” In Grove Music Online, 2012. Accessed January 14, 2020. https://doi-org.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.A2223858


Rainey, Gertrude “Ma.” “Those Dogs of Mine.” A Mother of the Blues, 2007.

Smith, Bessie. “Sam Jones Blues.” The Complete Recordings, Vol. 1. Song Music Entertainment, 1991.

A special thank you to ZapSplat for our sound effects.