White Face, Black Voice: Race, Gender, and Region in the Music of the Boswell Sisters
The New Orleans hot jazz vocal trio the Boswell Sisters was one of the leading ensembles of the 1930s. Enormously popular with audiences, the Boswells were also recognized by colleagues and peers to be among the finest singers, instrumentalists, and arrangers of their day. Many jazz historians remember them as the first successful white singers who truly “sounded black,” yet they rarely interrogate what “sounding black” meant for the Boswells, not only in technical or musical terms but also as an expression of the cultural attitudes and ideologies that shape stylistic judgments. The Boswells' audience understood vocal blackness as a cultural trope, though that understanding was simultaneously filtered through minstrelsy's legacy and challenged by the new entertainment media. Moreover, the sisters' southern femininity had the capacity to further contexualize and “color” both their musical output and its reception. This essay examines what it meant for a white voice to sound black in the United States during the early 1930s, and charts how the Boswells permeated the cultural, racial, and gender boundaries implicit in both blackness and southernness as they developed their collective musical voice.