The Woman Who Preserved Zora Neale Hurston’s Musical Legacy

Daphne A. Brooks on Rosetta Reitz, Grassroots Blues Activism, and Black Feminism

If there were any critic or collector who would have been an especially passionate steward of Zora Neale Hurston’s historic recordings, it probably would have been the Jewish feminist activist, intellectual, and entrepreneur Rosetta Reitz (pronounced “rights”). The dynamic Reitz who proudly wore both such hats throughout her trailblazing career would have likely gone to great lengths to care for, study, protect, and preserve Hurston’s sound scholarship. But Reitz’s voluminous archive surprisingly shows little trace of Hurston’s labors. Her absence from the feminist public historian’s records perhaps says everything about the extent of Hurston’s obscurity as a sound archivist in the 1970s since Reitz was a beast of a collector, a superwonk who, above all else, devoted her life to Black women’s sonic cultures, and a woman who would ultimately produce some of the most extensive and trenchant critical thought and writing about Black women musicians that had ever been published.

Born Rosetta Goldman on September 28, 1924, in upstate New York, the woman who would ultimately become a maverick in feminist blues record collecting, record producing, and Black feminist music programming managed the demands of single motherhood in the 1960s while bouncing through a series of jobs that often reflected her New Left, second-wave social and cultural sensibilities. From running her own 4 Seasons bookshop in Manhattan to writing a weekly food column for the Village Voice in the early 1970s to publishing Menopause: A Positive Approach, a Book-of-the-Month selection in 1978, Reitz sustained a multifaceted career for many years as a New York feminist activist and local cultural figure before settling on a line of work that became her passion and priority for the last three decades of her life. In the wake of completing Menopause, she turned in full to the world of blues women.

The connection between that book and her dedication to African American women’s music is one that she would highlight often in her many press interviews to promote the record label that she established in 1979 with $10,000 culled largely from “donations” provided by “women who kn[e]w and respect[ed] her work.” “I was nurtured by these women and their music,” Reitz told Black feminist journalist Jill Nelson in a 1980 interview. “I got courage, strength and wonderful energy back from them. I almost feel as if I owe them a debt—they got me through.”

Reitz framed her commitment to promoting the import and legacies of blues women’s work as, in part, a kind of feminist public service designed to broadly disseminate to other women the kind of nurturance that long-forgotten recordings had given to her. “I put their records on because here I was—a woman nurturing children, and on the job giving to the job and the bosses, and coming home and having to give. So who was feeding me? These women fed me. I feel that I owe them something because I got so much from them.” A self-avowed “feminist before the word feminist was even invented,” Reitz articulated personal-as-the-political-as-the-cultural-as-the-professional narratives about the birth of her label, Rosetta Records.

The first and only record label devoted entirely to specializing in women’s blues and jazz music, Rosetta Records was the pinnacle of Reitz’s achievements as a feminist historian and entrepreneur. In a career that spanned from the 1960s to her death in 2008, Reitz moved fluidly from running the label to teaching college courses at the New School in Manhattan, delivering campus lectures, and organizing full-scale concert events with artists whose work she lionized and for whom she fought hard to gain the critical and public recognition long denied them. As she explained in a letter to (of all people) Bessie Smith’s adopted son, Jack Gee Jr., and his attorney, “I am a women’s jazz historian who works hard to get more women written into the history of American music for their contribution to it. And written in [sic] with greater dignity and seriousness than is often afforded them when they are included.

That vision would drive Reitz to produce a total of nineteen album compilations (though she had been aiming to make 26) ranging from commemorative collections of a single artist’s work to thematic concept albums that focused on the pioneering contributions of musicians who were kindred in aesthetic spirit (“foremothers,” “mean mothers: independent women’s blues”), as well as subgenres of blues women’s songs that focused on, for instance, the Great Migration (“railroad women’s blues”). In what was arguably her greatest achievement as an archivist and producer, Reitz collaborated with the Library of Congress, regional librarians, a veteran historian of African American culture, and a Black feminist musician and activist to compile the first album anthology of women’s prison songs, culled from the fieldwork of John A. Lomax and Herbert Halpert.

Reitz framed her commitment to promoting the import and legacies of blues women’s work as a kind of feminist public service.

While Rosetta Records served as the bedrock for her mission to recenter blues women’s work in the national cultural imaginary, Reitz embarked on a campaign to institutionalize the music and iconicity of these artists in multiple contexts—leading the effort to, for instance, honor Bessie Smith with a commemorative postage stamp and to have her inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. At a moment when Black studies and women’s studies academic programs were slowly yet determinedly growing in size and number at colleges across the country, Reitz worked the “outer rim,” the spaces beyond academia, quotidian public and consumer cultures that neither prized nor even recognized the need for revaluing African American women’s art of any kind. To Gee she pointed out, “[It] was I who badgered the national women’s hall of fame, from the time they started, to induct bessie smith. My feeling was, that would give her a dignity on the level of my other heroes, who were already in: Emily Dickinson and Eleanor Roosevelt. When I lecture . . . I speak of these three women in the same breadth [sic] and discuss how each, in a creative way, carved out her own life, using improvisation, illustrating how much they have in common as American women of achievement.”

Reitz’s entrepreneurial and activist vision was all-encompassing in such a way that it extended well beyond the label and into the realm of live performance, “the functional part of this music” as she called it in a 1980 New York Times interview. “There are books that have . . . academic feeling” she mused. “I wanted to get into the action more . . . get involved with the women, become an intimate and [an] adviser of these women, particularly the older ones—Sippie Wallace . . . Edith Wilson and Adelaide Hall.” It was the liveness of two concert events that she curated and produced in 1980 and 1981, respectively, that provided her with a platform to valorize the central ideals undergirding her own love of blues and jazz women’s music: its sensuality, its humor, its mode of nuanced social critique, its articulation of women’s autonomy.

With legendary jazz promoter and producer George Wein, Reitz organized concerts that enlisted veterans (Wallace, Big Mama Thornton) as well as younger upstarts (Nell Carter, Koko Taylor, and Carmen McCrae) to perform a repertoire of songs arranged in categories that, taken together, canonized the forgotten (with tributes to Bessie Smith and Lil Hardin Armstrong) and celebrated classic songs from across the century made famous by blues women (from W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” to Taylor’s 1978 “I’m a Woman,” her self-penned, revisionist take on Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man”). As she declares in the program essay to 1981’s “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues” concert, “We want to show that women didn’t only sigh and cry when they sang the blues but shouted in defiance, too. They also gave instructions. The songs where the women state what they want in an unequivocal way, instead of reacting to what they get, are thrilling.”

Reitz’s directorial spirit conveys the passion of a curator who felt the music to the bone and who was determined to get others to feel it too. For her Blues Is A Woman show, she made it clear that, “I want [show host Carmen McRae] to groove to [Reitz’s script]. . . . I want her to talk-sing some of it. I want Doc Cheatham to give out a clarion call on the trumpet everytime [sic] she says: ‘And there was ’I want Panama Francis to use the brushes gently but use the cymbals for names like Bessie Smith, Sippie W. etc. I want Vic Dickenson to do a little church response amen on the trombone. I want Carmen to help out with this and make suggestions that she likes.” Reitz maintained a serious, professional, and stirringly personal relationship with the music, the surviving pioneers who made the music, and contemporary artists who were busy at work keeping the music alive. At the same time, she was steadfast about assuming the role of “the messenger” figure who could protect and promote extraordinary legacies and precious archives of sound and, likewise, prove how enduringly relevant the music remained.

While Rosetta Records served as the bedrock for her mission to recenter blues women’s work in the national cultural imaginary, Reitz embarked on a campaign to institutionalize the music and iconicity of these artists in multiple contexts.

But arguably Reitz’s greatest and heretofore unheralded legacy was in the realm of music criticism. As this chapter reveals, Reitz is one of our most formidable blues and jazz music critics, as well as a focused second-wave feminist critic, perhaps one of the only feminists of her generation to consistently and extensively champion the aesthetic work of Black women musicians as a vital and central component—the bedrock—of modern American culture. Her voluminous body of work, which includes dozens of meticulously crafted and heavily researched liner notes essays on women’s blues and jazz, not only make her worthy of recognition but also illuminate the myriad ways that Rosetta Reitz fundamentally revolutionized intellectual discourse on Black women’s musicality.

No study of Black women and music should, in my opinion, overlook the groundbreaking critical methodologies and style of analysis that Reitz brought to her writing, since her work sought to change the playing field on which Black women musicians emerged as topics of interest and value among critics as well as fans. She cultivated a new critical language and new lens through which we might engage these artists and apprehend their often stunning, moving, and exhilarating artistic choices. Her cultural theories and critical strategies for affirming Black women of sound anticipate the sensual and improvisational moves and the archival impulses of Janelle Monáe. They also recall the performative intimacies, high affect, and collector’s curatorial vision of Lady Z(ora); and Abbey Lincoln’s recognition of Black women artists as social mood critics who are urgently attuned to the worlds in which they are situated. Reitz, the intellectual, brought all of these concerns together in her writing and left behind some liner notes to accompany Black women’s subterranean sonic revolution.

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Where did she come from? How did she come to be—this intensely committed, white Jewish feminist music critic who was equally in love with women’s liberation and Black women’s sonic virtuosity? What are the roots of a woman who ultimately held fast to the idea that her feminist politics and her vast and sophisticated knowledge of blues and jazz histories and musical repertoires were deeply entwined with one another? Born decades before the flourishing era of the modern women’s movement in the mid to late 1960s, Rosetta Reitz came of age long before the concept of a feminist music critic and entrepreneur would have been recognizable—let alone viable—career options for college-educated women—even during the war years of her early twenties when women’s participation in the labor force opened up new opportunities for economic self-sufficiency and reinvention.

But gender equality was a concept that no doubt gradually permeated the social and political landscape of her life in the long arc that stretched from a childhood in Utica, New York (as “the last and sixth child of immigrant parents” who owned a bakery), to teen years “doing the lindy hop” and listening to the Saturday Night Hit Parade, to “jitterbugging” her way through her 1940s college years (in Buffalo and then Madison, Wisconsin) to marriage and motherhood, and finally to living a life as a separated and single New York City career woman in the late 1960s. Both the formation of the leftist Congress of American Women, which “successfully linked women’s issues, social justice, and peace with racial equality and economic justice,” and the birth of the National Organization for Women in 1966, which “challenged American society to heed women’s grievances” for equality and widespread social reform, created the conditions for women like Reitz to find their activist voices, and her involvement in these organizations were pivotal to her intellectual maturation as a feminist.

Reitz’s politics gained traction in concert with the long history of 20th-century women’s liberation spurred forward by old guard feminist activists like Betty Friedan and Gerda Lerner, bohemian cosmopolitan thinkers like Simone de Beauvoir and Alice Rossi, the journalist and public-facing force Gloria Steinem, and Civil Rights leaders like Pauli Murray, Ella Baker, and Fannie Lou Hamer. Three years younger than Friedan, Reitz would have likely felt some generational kinship with that icon, the housewife and former labor organizer whose 1963 book The Feminine Mystique would set off an unprecedented national debate about middle-class white women’s gender oppression. One can imagine how Friedan’s call to those women to question their conditions and “to live an examined and purposeful life” would have been heard by Reitz, who, by the end of the decade, had struck out on her own in the world to take up a series of professional odd jobs.

There were signs all along that she would eventually sustain a life in writing, from her early, one-off culinary publication, Mushroom Cookery (1965), to her second-wave self-help book, Menopause (1977)—the project which she always referenced as the pathway to her complete and utter devotion to the blues—to her occasional articles in the Village Voice. Across these publications, she was cultivating a politics in her prose that would come to fruition while running her label. If Menopause revealed Reitz’s interest in freeing women of the stigma associated with aging and empowering them with knowledge about their bodies (in the vein of other classic works from that era), the archives she venerated and protected and the critical discourse about her beloved musicians that she pieced together with craftsman-like, painstaking care reveled in the sexual assertiveness and autonomy of blues women’s music. The leap that she was making between these two projects effectively bridged the historical gap between early 20th-century Black women entertainers and the mid- to late-century ethics of modern feminism.

Just as Alice Walker, Daphne Duval Harrison, Hazel Carby, Angela Davis, and numerous other Black feminist scholars would look to the blues as an intellectual genealogical touchstone that established a “discourse of sexuality” authored by Black women who “constructed themselves as sexual subjects through song” and who conceived of sexuality as “one of the most tangible domains in which emancipation was acted upon and through which  meanings were expressed,” so too did Reitz wage a campaign to theorize the feminist sexual politics of the genre in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

No study of Black women and music should overlook the groundbreaking critical methodologies and style of analysis that Reitz brought to her writing.

Her archive reveals that she often rehearsed these theories outside of or in preparation for her finished essays. In her unpublished notes on the bluest of blues queens, Lucille Bogan, for instance, Reitz reflected on the ways that Bogan’s frank eroticism bespeaks the effort to “try to love ourselves,” to “not skip over any parts even if we have been taught our most important female place is smelly, dirty, shameful.” This act of reclamation is a ritual enacted again and again by the women she admiringly referred to as “outlaws,” women who, in order “to survive . . . had to give themselves power to transcend their reality.”

“What these women were trying to do,” Reitz mused in her notes, “was to explore their genuine feelings, unorthodox as they may be, without the usual cultural guidelines, meaning without the prevailing male point of view or the male version of a woman’s point [of view]” which men “may have written” for women to sing. The authority and integrity of the artist’s performance and her interpretative powers remain central in Reitz’s analyses and serve as the sturdy framework for articulating the complexities of sexual desire and pleasure. Like a speculative ethnographer of sorts, Reitz interrogated and tried to imagine the intimacies of blues women’s lives and how those intimacies undergirded their repertoires. In her research files, she ventured that the “blues women[,] unlike feminists” of her own time, “didn’t have to fight to be on top,” and she quickly made a memo to herself to try to “find this out from some women how their sex was—did they get on top with no fanfare.”

Her frank and focused feminist principles merged with a clear recognition of long-standing debates in Black studies that centered on the question of African retentions and the survival of traces of African cultural lifeworlds in the wake of the Middle Passage and North American enslavement. Peppered throughout her profiles of various musicians are references to their invocation of diasporic sounds. In Dorothy Donegan’s performances, she traces a line of influence “underneath the sophisticated European technique” in which “lurks the Pentacostal [sic] big Mama who has always swung the congregation and moved them by shouting her use of African rhythms.” This was no caricatured figure to Reitz. Rather, church women, blues women, and jazz pianists like Donegan were equally united in their virtuosic fortitude and their ability to uniquely summon the cultural roots of Blackness that serve as the DNA for the blues, for musical modernity. The genius of Bessie Smith was, in Reitz’s opinion, her ability to “change a folk expression into an indigenous art form by successfully blending African and Western modes of music.” Her criticism insisted on affirming the continuities between “the development of this music” and the Black diasporic oral tradition.

Well aware of the value of the blues as a force of sustenance, survival, and self-reckoning in Black folks’ lives, Reitz kept notes for herself on her own gendered philosophy of the music. “Through their songs,” she ventured, “these women show us their ways of being; their ways of comprehending the world; of making sense of their lives . . . synchronizing feeling with music into understandable order.” Hers was a feminist reading of blues culture, quotidian and clear-eyed in its assessments of this music’s utility and meaning specifically for, by, and about Black women. Her form of Black feminist blues study posed a critical alternative to 1980s Black poststructuralist rereadings of the music that posited similar arguments but that nonetheless and unsurprisingly continued the late 20th-century trend of diminishing or altogether obscuring recognition of women artists as major architects of the tradition. This was contemporary Black feminist blues theory in the making, a wholesale, intersectional interrogation of the form. Although sometimes prone to New Age hippie quirks and the occasional narrow claim or observation, Rosetta Reitz wrote criticism that was overwhelmingly robust, surprising, probing, and deeply and intensely committed to moving Black women back to the forefront of blues and jazz culture.

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Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound by Daphne A. Brooks

Excerpted from Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound by Daphne A. Brooks, published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Copyright © by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. USed by permission. All rights reserved.

Daphne A. Brooks
Daphne A. Brooks
Daphne A. Brooks is author of Jeff Buckley's Grace and Bodies in Dissent, winner of the Errol Hill Award for outstanding scholarship in African American performance studies. A professor at Yale University, she has written liner notes to accompany the recordings of Aretha Franklin, Tammi Terrell, and Prince, as well as stories for the New York Times, The Guardian, The Nation, and Pitchfork.





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