Meet Lucille Bogan, the blues pioneer who was not afraid to sing about booze and sex

Nii Ntreh March 16, 2021
Lucille Bogan, along with Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, have been called the three most important Black women in the history of the Blues genre. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Lucille Bogan sometimes went by the pseudonym Bessie Jackson, much like other famous names you may know including Eric Marlon Bishop, popularly called Jamie Foxx or Samuel Langhorne Clemens, who is easily identified as Mark Twain.

But Bessie Jackson was not born until after 1933 when Bogan went to New York to transform what had been modest success into eternal acclaim. She had actually been born Lucille Anderson in 1897 in the heart of Mississippi but took Bogan after she was married to Nazareth Lee Bogan at the age of 17.

By this time, her desire to entertain was already fetching admirers among Black folks in the town she was raised – Birmingham, Alabama. In 1923, Bogan became a recording artist for a recording company in New York contracted to vaudevillian entertainment. New York on the east coast and Chicago in the midwest were the epicenters of the Black blues genre which Bogan wanted to sing. And so when in Georgia she recorded the classic, Pawn Shop Blues, – unrelated to Lana Del Rey’s song of the same title – Bogan provoked the interest of many in her world.

Blues was still evolving in the early years of the 20th century and was navigating a skeptical American appeal. Bogan was not exactly traveling through uncharted territory since Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, and then Bessie Smith were trailblazers. Together all three have been christened “the big three of the blues” by the German ethnomusicologist and filmmaker, Eric Borneman.

However, unlike in Smith and Rainey’s cases, Bogan’s legendary status is still yet to be affirmed in the ways we know how in contemporary times. For instance, Rainey was only recently played on the silver screen by Viola Davis in a movie that featured the late Chadwick Boseman too. In the 2015 biopic Bessie, Queen Latifah played Smith. What seems like an amnesiac verdict on Bogan may have something to do with the fact that Bogan did not turn out as great as the other two. Rainey and Smith hit the heights permissible for Black women in entertainment in the 1920s and 30s.

The other reason may be that Bogan was not exactly shy to sing about things you would not call ladylike.

Consider this from Bogan’s 1934 song Till The Cows Come Home. It was released nearly 90 years ago when America was not the most culturally-relaxed society it is today:

I got a man I love
I got a man I like
Every time I f*ck them mens
I give ’em the doggone clap
Oh, baby
Give ’em the doggone clap
But that’s the kind of p*ssy that they really like

And this is the opening verse. In the words of film critic Elvis Mitchell, “You actually felt like you want to have a cigarette after you hear a Lucille Bogan song. She completely owned who she was, let you know who she was [and] let you know what she could do.”

Other songs were about alcohol – why she liked it and why she encouraged drinking. As you would expect, some of Bogan’s songs were commercial successes thanks to men who enjoyed New York’s nightlife. Bogan was booked and she was hailed but never did she transcend sensuous enjoyability. And in effect, counter to the belief that well-behaved women seldom make history, this not-so-well-behaved woman has not been faintly historic.

Bogan is remembered but by the few who are blues connoisseurs. There is no proof that she recorded after 1935, two years after moving to New York. She died in 1951 in California, aged 51.

Last Edited by:Nii Ntreh Updated: March 16, 2021


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