Although Angela Davis presents the idea that “the most frequent recurring themes of women’s blues music revolve around male lovers” in her article “Mama’s Got the Blue’s,” the blues were about much more than simply being sad because your man got you down (Davis 45). That’s not to say that the blues did not have their share of stories about love gone bad. However, blues divas such as Gertrude Malissa (“Ma”) Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday developed the blues into a network of sorts between women in order to provide empowering idea, emotional support, and advice on how to deal with said problems with these men. The blues took on the “missionary role of introducing ‘true womanhood’ to their less fortunate sisters” by “encouraging assertiveness and independence among black women” (Davis 65, 46). Ma Rainey’s song “Black Eye Blues,” is a prime example of what more the blues had to offer rather besides a bitter love story.
The song tells the story of the dynamics of relationships between men and women through the story of Miss Nancy Ann and the abusive relationship she has with her man. Despite their poor relationship, she sticks around, like most women often did during this time. The song follows a basic ABAB pattern followed by a chorus. The A sections remain steady until the end of each line when Ma Rainey raises her pitch a notch in order to emphasize the last few words at the end. The A sections seem to serve as a bit of a filler, providing background information about Miss Nancy and her man, but it is during the B sections where the real story takes place. During the B sections, her pitch goes down in the first line, creating a more somber tone, alluding to a more serious subject matter, and then goes up again in the second line to emphasize some sort of empowerment. For example, in the first line of the B section she sings: “then I hear Miss Nancy say,” followed by a shift up in pitch to the line: “Why do you treat your gal that way?”expressing a sense of empowerment since Miss Nancy is actually standing up to her man by asking the question. In the second B section she starts off singing, “He beat Miss Nancy ‘cross the head,” and the pitch goes down with the seriousness of the subject matter, but then when she switches to the next line: “When she rose to her feet, she said” the pitch goes up, again in relation to the empowering act of Miss Nancy standing up to her man. Despite Miss Nancy being beaten, the song goes into a chorus, accompanied by an upbeat melody, that supports Miss Nancy’s hopeful message that even though she has stuck around despite being beaten, mistreated, and cheated on, she ain’t no fool, and one of these day’s she’s going to catch her man when he least expects it, with his “britches down.”
Many of these women’s blues songs seemed to offer advice that accepted “male supremacy without overtly challenging it, but it also displays unmistakable oppositional attitudes in its rejection of sexual passivity as a defining characteristic of womanhood,” which might seem like a joke to liberated women nowadays, but to the women during this time period it was a big deal (Davis 54). Davis asserts that “one of the principal modes of community-building in women’s blues is that of sharing experiences for the purpose of instructing women how to conduct their lives,” and although the song “Black Eyed Blues” may seem like a meek attempt at empowerment, it offered something to women in the same situations (Davis 53). It sent out the message that there were many other women in the same situation, and like Miss Nancy, although you may have lost something by letting him “take all my money, blacken both of my eyes, give it to another woman, come home and tell me lies,” you could still hold on to your dignity and have hope to regain your freedom because one day, sooner or later, you’re going to catch that “low down alligator” with his britches down.