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Gendered Subjects, Gendered Objects

Queen Bee: Koko Taylor’s Challenge to Blues and Rock & Roll’s Gendered Lyrical Lineage

By Lisette Gallaher

Can a musical genre be gendered? According to the history of rock & roll, yes. Rock music has often been considered notoriously masculine, as an industry and an expression. However, the masculinity of rock was not produced in a vacuum, but rather developed over time as rock & roll grew from its blues, country and jazz roots. So many rock artists of the sixties and seventies were influenced by the blues music of the forties and fifties, and recognising these roots helps develop a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the genre of rock & roll music. As musical styles and lyrical messages were passed down from generation to generation of musicians, certain cultural norms and ideals began to reveal themselves, particularly in regard to gender roles. An example of this gendered lyrical lineage is present in the often-covered tune “I’m a King Bee.”

Album Cover for The Early Swamp-Blues Classics, Excello Records, 1994

The song “I’m a King Bee” was originally recorded by blues musician Slim Harpo in 1957.[1] Slim’s version has been covered by many artists since its release, including, but not limited to, the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, the Doors, Pink Floyd, and Muddy Waters. With so many cover versions spanning decades after its original release, it is apparent that the song is significant to many blues and rock & roll artists. This recurring fascination may, in part, stem from the song’s blues roots, but it may also come from the performance of a certain type of masculinity espoused by its lyrics. In nearly every rendition of the song, the lyrics have remained the same as Slim’s:

Well, I'm a king bee, buzzin' around yo' hive 
Well, I'm a king bee, buzzin' around yo' hive 
Well, I can make honey, baby 
Let me come inside 
 
I'm young and able to buzz all night long 
I'm young and able to buzz all night long 
Well, when you hear me buzzin', baby 
Some stingin' is going on 
 
Well, buzz awhile 
'Sting-a-been' 
 
Well, I'm a king bee, want you to be my queen 
Well, I'm a king bee,want you to be my queen 
Together we can make honey 
The world ever, never, seen 
 
Well, I'm a king bee, can buzz all night long 
Well, I'm a king bee, can buzz all night long 
Well, I can buzz better, baby 
When yo' man is gone.2

These lyrics are rather explicitly sexual, describing a man’s desire to “come inside” a woman so he can “make honey.” Combined with the track’s slow and sensuous music, “I’m a King Bee” becomes a song where the narrator is attempting to entice a woman to have sex with him. In terms of gender, the lyrics represent a certain type of masculinity that emphasises a man’s sexual domination and prowess with no reference to the woman’s consent or pleasure. In this way, “I’m a King Bee” becomes a song that operates within a system known as “hegemonic masculinity.” As defined by R. W. Connell, hegemonic masculinity references the continuation of an idealised type of man that places men before women in society, creating a gendered dynamic of domination and suppression where men are the dominators.[3] More simply, hegemonic masculinity emphasises the dominant position of men by representing masculine characteristics through cultural references, such as actors, musicians, and athletes and the masculine ideals they portray in their work. In this way, the lyrics of “I’m a King Bee,” unchanged in any rendition by male artists, operates within hegemonic masculinity to preserve men’s in society by depicting the masculine characteristic of sexual desire, power, and domination.

What happens, then, when “I’m a King Bee” is sung by a woman?




Promotional photo of Koko Taylor by Steve Kagan for Alligator Records

Known as the “Queen of Blues,” Koko Taylor produced her own version of the song in 1985, titled “Queen Bee.” For the first time in the song’s history, the lyrics were altered in Taylor’s rendition to be sung from a female perspective. Taylor’s switching “king” to “queen” indicates an understanding of the original song’s gendered lyrics and a deliberate attempt to alter that gendered narrative:

Well, I'm a queen bee, buzzin' 'round your hive
Well, I'm a queen bee, buzzin' 'round your hive
When you hear me buzzin'
Please, let me come inside

I'm young and able to buzz all night long
I'm young and able to buzz all night long
When you hear me buzzin'
Some stinging's going on

Well, I'm a queen bee, won't you be my friend?
Well, I'm a queen bee, won't you be my friend?
Together we can make honey
Like the world never seen

Well, I'm a queen bee, buzz all night long
Well, I'm a queen bee, buzz all night long
Well, I could buzz at you, baby, when your gal is gone [4]

The reasoning behind her alteration of the lyrics, however, remains unclear. By performing the masculine lyrics from a female point of view, was Taylor attempting to challenge the masculine notes of sexual conquest? Or was she just simply creating her own version of a famous, often covered tune to secure her place as a woman in the male-dominated music industry?[5] Unfortunately, there seems to be no available account of Taylor’s intentions with “Queen Bee” from the artist herself. Similarly, biographies on Taylor lack any reference to her version of the song. What is often noted, however, is how Taylor’s successful career in the blues industry challenged the male dominance of the genre.[6] Further, Taylor’s success is often attributed to her raw, deep and raspy voice.[7] Her voice is far from what might be considered a “feminine” singing voice, characterised by higher-pitches and smoother vocals.

Though Koko Taylor is considered a trailblazer for women in the blues industry, her success in her field largely comes from her “masculine” vocals. In other words, it could be said that her male-sounding voice gave her the opportunity to rise in the male-dominated industry. In looking only at Taylor’s version of “I’m a King Bee” (as the case may be different in her original songs), it can be argued that, even though she alters the lyrics to be sung from a female perspective, she is still perpetuating the masculine characteristics of the song through her gritty voice and dominating words. This is not to say, however, that her rendition of the song serves the same purpose in hegemonic masculinity as other versions by male artists. Because she deliberately alters the lyrics to be sung from a female perspective while maintaining all other “masculine” qualities of the original tune, Taylor’s version still challenges gender roles by suggesting that women, too, can be sexually dominating.

If Taylor’s “Queen Bee” is regarded on its own, it can be heard as a more “masculine” song because the lyrics are describing sexual domination, the singer’s voice is gritty, and the music is seductive. However, when the Taylor’s version of the song is contextualised and placed alongside the other renditions done by male artists, as is done here, it becomes apparent that her version of the song stands as a challenge to hegemonic masculinity because it reverses the song’s gender roles that were accepted and replicated by the covering artists before her. In doing so, Taylor disrupts the lineage of gendered lyrics passed down through generations of blues and rock artists and provides a different perspective on the gendered nature of sexual domination in songs. Therefore, Taylor’s “Queen Bee” is an important and significant song in the history of blues and rock & roll music for its contribution to the understanding of gender roles in both genres and the appreciation for how such gender roles are passed down through generations of artists.


[1] For further reading on the history of Slim’s song, check out Rick Moore’s article in American Songwriter:

https://americansongwriter.com/slim-harpo-im-a-king-bee/rick-moore/

[2] Slim Harpo, “I’m a King Bee,” Got Love if you Want It, Excello Records (1957).

[3] R. W. Connell, Masculinities (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005), pp. 77.

[4] Koko Taylor, “Queen Bee,” Queen of the Blues, Alligator Records (1985).

[5] A question that is beyond the scope of this blog post that also deserves consideration is how Taylor’s position as a black woman might have affected her approach to this song, since it was originally written by a black man but was most frequently covered by white male artists. In other words, how might have her placement as a black singer also impacted her performance of this song?

[6] Steve Huey, “Koko Taylor: Artist Biography,” All Music, https://www.allmusic.com/artist/koko-taylor-mn0000376739/biography [accessed 11 Feb 2020]; “Koko Taylor,” Alligator Records, https://www.alligator.com/artists/Koko-Taylor/index.cfm [accessed 11 Feb 2020].

[7] George Fish, “Koko Taylor, ‘Queen of Blues,’ Dies at 80,” Solidarity, 7 June 2009, https://solidarity-us.org/p2225/ [accessed 11 Feb 2020].

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