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Black Women’s Work Songs

 

The other day I came across a song from 1928 by Hattie Burleson called “Sadie’s Servant Room Blues.” In it the singer laments about the low pay, long hours, and lack of privacy associated with being a domestic worker.

 

 

I have been absolutely obsessed with music since I was a kid. Music has a way of explaining things better than multisyllabic academic words. So I thought I would share some of my favorite songs about black women working.

 

1. Bill Withers, Grandma’s Hands

 

There is something deceptively simple about this song. I love it because my mother used to sing it to me. It was how I first learned about her grandmother, Josephine, who worked as a domestic worker. There is something beautiful about the fact that the same hands that ached from scrubbing also nurtured.

 

2. Oscar Brown, Jr., Brown Baby

 

Funny story: My first year of college I read Elaine Brown’s A Taste of Power and she mentioned this song somewhere in the narrative completely at random. I heard the song in my head, but not in a man’s voice. I heard it in my mother’s voice. So I called her and asked her if she knew the song. And she told me she used to sing it to me as a newborn as she rocked me to sleep. It was really eerie. But sort of speaks to the significance of music to my life and my mother’s.

Although it’s not really a work song per se, I finally watched the Black Panther PBS Documentary (more on this in a later blog). I noticed those passing moments when women casually mentioned that they were working while *very* pregnant or with very young children. One woman actually said she was in labor while serving breakfast. So this song speaks to the centrality of motherhood to the revolutionary work that black women do. Imagine working for wages that you will never see. They will be paid to your children. That’s how I think about this.

 

3. Nina Simone, Pirate Jenny

 

So this song was originally written for Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. Essentially, Jenny is a maid in a lowly German hotel who plots her revenge for the horrible treatment she receives by killing everyone. Ms. Simone transports Jenny to South Carolina. And suddenly it’s a completely different story. I imagine *this* Jenny as a combination between Harriet Tubman and Nat Turner. Not to mention Nina Simone’s haunting voice transforms this into Greek epic levels of triumph snd tragedy.

 

4. Lucille Bogan, They Ain’t Walkin’

 

Although the vast majority of this blog is about domestic work, I am equally compelled by the history of black women and sexual labor. There are dozens of blues songs from the early twentieth century about the oldest profession. The key to understanding this song is to know that in 1930 tricks were what we call Johns now. So the basic premise is that it’s the Depression and ain’t nobody got no money to be spending on ladies of the evening. This woman has a corner store and a meat market, but she also has mouths to feed and bills to pay. But that supplemental income she makes from streetwalking sure ain’t what it used to be. You could read a hundred books about the Depression (believe me I have). None of them will explain the feeling of poverty the way this song does. Yet, it makes sex work so matter of fact. That’s my favorite part.

 

5. Phoebe Snow, Easy Street

 

I love this song for the way it starts:

I was feeling lost and kind of ill. So I wrote to God on my last dollar bill.

There is a certain mythology about black women as superhuman. This song isn’t that. I feel like we all have moments when we wish we could just be on “Easy Street.” I imagine that the historical figures that I revere so much all have these moments. I listen to Phoebe Snow as a reminder.

 

6. Bessie Smith, Washerwoman’s Blues

 

Released the same year as Sadie’s Servant Room Blues, this song is more of a cultural commentary on domestic work. The reference to Gold Dust Twins, a brand of washing powder is particularly telling.

 

Gold-Dust-Twins-Do-It-All

 

You want me to clean up after you and then you wanna mock me in the process? If that ain’t the blues I don’t know what is.

Well there you have it folks. A soundtrack, if you will, to accompany what goes on the cutting room floor.

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About Shana Russell

Woman. Scholar. Liberationist.

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