lesbian pulp and the lavender universe: Lesbians, Raunchy Lyrics, and Harlem's Golden Jazz Age

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Lesbians, Raunchy Lyrics, and Harlem's Golden Jazz Age

Pulp of the Month
"How Dark my Love"
Rea Michaels was one of the few
lesbian pulp fiction authors who wrote about
racial issues and interracial relationships.

New York's "Harlem Renaissance" in the 1920s to mid 30s included the rise of the Jazz Age. Harlem became the worldwide center for African American musicians, jazz singers, artists, intellectuals and writers. During this time a strong gay and lesbian subculture developed. LGBT life was definitely evident in several songs of the day.

In "B.D. (Bull Dagger) Women Blues", Lucille Bogan sings:
B.D. women, they all done learnt their plan

They can lay their jive just like a natural man

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

Singer Gladys Bentley and friend in front of Apollo poster

One of the most popular lesbian performers was Gladys Bentley, sometimes called “The Brown Bomber”. Belting out songs from behind her piano, Bentley created raunchy lyrics to well known songs and flirted with the females in the audience. In her trademark tux and top hat, Bentley sang at many of Harlem's nightclubs and speakeasys.  Along with Bentley's growing popularity also came financial success.  According to columnists, she eventually married her female lover from New Jersey.

Gladys Bentley was a regular headliner for Harry Hansberry's Clam House, the best known gay and lesbian club in Harlem. At its height, Hollywood stars came by to check out the shows including the famous bisexual actress Tallulah Bankhead. The Clam House was a narrow, smoky speakeasy on 133rd Street's Jungle Alley between Lenox and Seventh Avenue. Blair Niles' 1931 gay novel Strange Brother loosely based on The Clam House features an out lesbian performer named 'Sybil' at 'The Lobster Pot'. (Lobster, Clam, get it?)

Tallulah Bankhead, 4th from right, with the 'girls'
Ma Rainey, legendary blues singer and vaudeville entertainer is also known to have had women lovers. An inductee into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, she performed with many jazz greats including Louie Armstrong. Check out the lyrics to her 1928 blues song that she wrote and performed about her relationships with women.

Prove it on Me Blues

I went out last night, had a great big fight
Everything seemed to go wrong
When I looked up, to my surprise
The gal I was with was gone

Folks say I'm crooked
I don't know where she took it
I want the whole world to know

I went out last night with a crowd of my friends
They must've been women, 'cause I don't like no men
It's true I wear a collar and a tie,
I like to watch the women as they pass by

They say I do it, ain't nobody caught me
They sure gotta prove it on me


During the prohibition, popular places to socialize, find liquor and some entertainment included speakeasys, 'buffet flats', house parties, rent parties and costume balls. Speakeasys were located in dark basements or back rooms behind closed doors and peepholes. Buffet flats were private after-hours spots that were usually in someone's apartment. They originally sprung up during the late 1800s to provide a safe place to stay overnight for black travelers. By the 1920s, Buffet flats gained a much wilder reputation for illegal activities such as drinking, gambling, and prostitution.

Drag Costume Balls were where the boys got to show off and the women escorted them. The Savoy Ballroom was one of the establishments that hosted gala events where the men preened before a grand entrance to the dance floor in exquisite gowns. It was not unusual to see Harlem socialites along with downtown avant-garde whites up in the balconies enjoying the spectacular. The biggest cabarets during the Harlem Renaissance were the Cotton Club, Connie's Inn, and Small's Paradise. The most famous, the Cotton Club on 125th Street still exists today.

Harlem nightlife declined dramatically after the stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression and the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. Gladys Bentley took her business and her tuxedo to California performing at "Joquins' El Rancho" in Los Angeles and "Monas" in San Francisco, occasionally getting in trouble with the law for wearing her signature male attire.

Below is a 1942 advertisement for Mona's Club 440 where the words "gay" and "butch" signaled to women that Mona's was primarily a lesbian club. Mona's Club at 440 Broadway later became Anne's 440, and featured San Francisco singer Johnny Mathis.

In 1981 Rosetta Records, a small feminist record label in New York created by Rosetta Reitz produced "Mean Mothers/Independent Women's Blues, Vol. 1"  including Gladys Bentley singing "How Much Can I Stand?". Document Records released "Maggie Jones & Gladys Bentley, Complete Recorded Works" in 1995.

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