In 2015, Queen Latifah made waves as blues singer and LGBTQ+ pioneer Bessie Smith in the TV film Bessie. In 2020, Viola Davis garnered serious awards season buzz for her portrayal of fellow LGBTQ+ blues singer Ma Rainey in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Even with the critical success of these two, the third sapphic chanteuse rounding out what some call “the big three of the blues” has yet to be canonized on the screen. But just who is this singer?
Lucille Bogan (1897-1948) was an expert not just at the blues, but “dirty” blues, the kind of blues that started up at the bar late in the night and sang of raucous topics that would be shunned in the light of day.
One of her dirtiest of such recordings, “Shave ‘Em Dry”, lives on for how singularly raunchy it is. Though written by Rainey, Bogan’s delivery of lines like “I got fat from f*cking” and “I got nipples on my titties big as the end of my thumb” elicit a laugh as quick as a pearl-clutch. By the time of recording “Shave ‘Em Dry”, Bogan had moved to NYC and started recording under the name “Bessie Jackson” to conceal her identity.
She was still working under that moniker when she recorded her version of the “B.D Woman’s Blues”, with “B.D” standing for “bulldagger” or “bull dyke”, a pejorative term for masculine lesbians. The lyrics, however, were nothing but reverent of the power of the butch.
“B.D. women, you sure can’t understand/They got a head like a sweet angel and they walk just like a natural man,” Bogan sang. Even with terminology and concepts that are now outdated, the message stands: butches have something good going on, and she’s got it bad.
Seeing modern Black LGBTQ+ performers like CupcakKe, Lil Nas X, and Megan Thee Stallion can sometimes feel novel, as if “Deepthroat” or “Montero” or “WAP” spawned solely from an excessive Zillennial sexual liberation. Artists like Bogan serve as reminders that the fun, the provocativeness, and the queer aspects of this work lives firmly in tradition.
Just last year Bogan was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, nearly three quarters of a century after her passing.
Take a trip through sapphic history with the “B.D. Woman’s Blues”: