Playlist: Black Queer Music History Pt. 1 (Early 20th Century)

It’s the best month of the year! In the US it’s Black History Month and in the UK it’s LGBT History Month, which means that all over the world it’s Black Queer History Month! Black queer folks have been and are continuously contributing important things to Western culture; that’s been true for as long as we’ve been a part of it. Particularly, Black queer folks have carved out a niche in the music industry. During the early twentieth century, with the rise of vaudeville shows, music was one of the few places it was okay to be a little raunchy. Coming out of a strict Victorian era, culture as a whole still stayed away from non-normative performances of gender and sexuality; but particularly in the theatre, there was space for play. For Black performers, blues became one of the mediums for this playfulness. In the early twentieth century part of what made blues “authentic” was its inherent theatricality (for more on theatricalism and the blues, check out Paige McGinley’s book, Staging the Blues: From Tent Shows to Tourism). Performers like Gladys Bently, Ma Rainey, and Bessie Smith became characters when they were singing. The separation of these performers from the music they were singing allowed them to explore their sexuality while still maintaining distance from queerness in their everyday lives, for survival purposes.

The blues allowed these queer women and others to be private in public and acted as resistance to a culture of censorship. Their music was raunchy, sexual and it made folks want to dance. It was revolutionary. And it inspired queer artists, playwrights, poets, and future queer musicians to live their truths as well. When you listen to this playlist, let it fill you with the revolutionary spirit of these talented and subversive queer artists. And then come back next week for more!

“Prove It On Me Blues” by Ma Rainey

“Empty Bed Blues, Pt. 1” by Bessie Smith

“You Got To Wet It” by Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon

“Embraceable You” by Billie Holiday

“B.D. Woman’s Blues” by Lucille Bogan

“My Handy Man Ain’t Handy No More” by Alberta Hunter

“Red Beans and Rice” by Gladys Bentley

“Bésame Much” by Josephine Baker

“Shave ‘Em Dry II” by Lucille Bogan

“Booze and Blues” by Ma Rainey

“I Ain’t Gonna Sin No More” by Ethel Waters

“Don’t Touch My Tomatoes” by Josephine Baker

“You Know Jam Don’t Shake” by Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon

“Explaining the Blues” by Ma Rainey

“How Long How Long Blues” by Gladys Bentley

“Little Black Sheep” by Ethel Waters

“Nobody Knows When You’re Down and Out” by Bessie Smith

“All of Me” by Billie Holiday

“Spank It” by Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon

“Sloppy Drunk Blues” by Lucille Bogan

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Ari is a 20-something artist and educator. They are a mom to two cats, they love domesticity, ritual, and porch time. They have studied, loved, and learned in CT, Greensboro, NC, and ATX.

Ari has written 330 articles for us.


  1. This list is absolutely everything. Thank you for sharing it! I also love Big Mama Thornton. I’m not sure if she sang the original version of Hound Dog but hers is waaaaay more soulful and powerful than Elvis’ pop version. Can we swap lists?

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