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The Midnight Ravers Presents!

Posted in Music Reviews, THE MIDNIGHT RAVERS PRESENTS! with tags , on September 21, 2019 by playthell

“Sweet Mama Stringbean” aka Ethel Waters

Women!  Tangled Up in the Blues

The Euridite Blues philosopher Albert Murray observes in his seminal text “Stomping the Blues” that blues as music is the antidote to the blues as such. Hence far from being a sad lament of resignation in the face of life’s trials and tribulations, the Blues is a music that celebrates life. It’s sensibility is “the opposite of sack cloth and ashes. Indeed Blues musicians chase the blues away, “they stomp the blues!”

The essential lesson of the blues Professor Murray argues, is although “life may be a low down dirty shame we got to keep on swinging anyway.” Just keep on keepin own as the old colored folks used to say down home. Certainly this was true of the pioneering women in the blues tradition.

Although few in the audience may have known the troubles she had seen, when these ladies of the Blues took the stage they were powerful, often risque, triumphant Divas who were large and in charge on the bandstand; the opposite of a downtrodden helpless female. The themes of the songs they sang were varied and covered a wide rage of  emotions and experience that capture the essence of the human condition in the modern world.

For instance, W. C. Handy’s iconic blues ballad “St. Louis Blues” is such an accurate mirror of the urban milieu in which he was living at the turn of the 20th century, that the distinguished Afro-American sociologist E. Franklin Fraizer refers to it in his analysis of the character of black life, culture and chances in their transition from rural southern to northern urban communities.

When Handy begins the St. Louis Blues with the lines “I hate to see that evening sun go down,” it was literally true, because he was homeless and sleeping in a park at the time!   The claim that popular song is the “literature of the masses” is as valid for the blues as for the ballads of the great Trinidadian song poets of the Calypso tradition. Among it’s themes are magical conjurations, natural disasters and  personal tragedies; most often expressed in their ordeals with men.

There are also comedic songs, the most clever of which is the double entendre songs which are often risque – such as “Handy Man” and “I’m Sellin my Porkchops but giving my gravy away,” marvelously  performed by Alberta Hunter and Memphis Minnie linked to the bottom of this essay. They were wild women whose calling was to drive the blues away with their sassy songs which – as the Afro-American novelist, essayists and blues musician Ralph Ellison argues -confronted the unpleasant vicissitudes of life with “a tragi/comic sensibility.”

Female Blues singers were pioneers in the record industry as they were among the first Black singers and Blues artists who were recorded. They were also instrumental in popularizing the 12-bar Blues throughout the U.S. When they sang, they usually were accompanied either by pianists or small Jazz ensembles, which were generally males who worked for them. As employers of men, this made Blues Women pioneers pioneers in another important respect, for there were very few women who publicly bossed men around publicly as the head of an economic organization. Blues bands were not just artistic ensembles, they were also a business. Hence, blues women had to also be good businesswomen.

This required an independence of spirit, vision, self-confidence, and strenght of personality that was essential to success for any entreprenuer, but doubly so for a woman boss in a man’s world, and triple so as black women in a racist white mans world. As has been said of Ginger Rodgers, Fred Astaire’s dance partner: “She did every complicated step Fred did, but she did it dancing backward wearing high heels.”

For black women in the racist apartheid America of the early 20th century, it was like dancing backward, in high heels on one leg! This is why the Blues woman emerged as a heroes of the feminist movement; they were the kind of strong willed independent women successfully competing in a male dominated arena that has emerged as the feminist ideal.

This special is dedicated to these artistic Amazons who were the pioneers in the illustrious tradition of Black Blues Women, women who were willing to hang out all night in dives jammin with “The Cats” in order to master their art. In Victorian America, where the Blues was born, “respectable” women didn’t hang out in such places alone in the early evening; let alone the early morning.  It was this rebel spirit that inspired the song “Wild Women Don’t Get The Blues.”

Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (born in 1886, died in 1939), is known as “Mother of the Blues,” and is credited as the first to perform the Blues on stage as popular entertainment when she began incorporating the new music into her act of show songs and comedy around 1902.

Ma Rainey and Her Band

In her recording of “See See Rider,” a tale about a cheatin two timing man, we see the combination of vulnerability and strength that would define the Blues Woman’s dramatis persone:

“I’m goin’ away, baby, I won’t be back til fall Lord, Lord, Lord

Goin away, baby, I won’t be back till fall

If I find me a good man, won’t be back at all.

I’m gonna buy me a pistol, just as long as I am tall

I’m gonna buy me a pistol, just as long as I am tall, Lord, Lord, Lord

Shoot my man, catch a cannonball

If he won’t have me, he won’t have no gal at all.”

Ma Rainey’s music would inspire African American poets such as Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown. More recently, Alice Walker looked to Ma Rainey’s music as a cultural model of African American womanhood when she wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Color Purple.

Mamie Smith (born in 1891, died in 1946),was the first Black female vocalist to record the Blues. Titled “Crazy Blues,” the song was recorded in 1920 and sold over 75,000 copies. Smith became known as “America’s First Lady of the Blues”. In 1920, the vaudeville singer, Lucille Hegamin, who was born in 1894 and died in 1970, became the second black woman to record the Blues when she recorded, “The Jazz Me Blues”.

Mamie Smith

Bessie Smith

But the most popular of the classic Blues singers was Tennessee-born Bessie Smith (no relation to Mamie Smith), who was born in 1894 and died in 1937. She first recorded in 1923 and became known as the “Empress of the Blues”. She signed with Columbia Records and became the highest-paid Black artist of the 1920s, a fertile period for Afro-American musical innovation, recording over 160 songs.

Alberta Hunter (born in 1895, died in 1984), attained recognition in 1923 when her original song “Downhearted Blues” was recorded by Bessie Smith. In 1926, she replaced Smith in the leading role of How Come? on Broadway. Hunter toured extensively for the USO during World War II and again during the Korean War. After World War II, she performed in England, toured Canada, and played long residences in Chicago. She retired from active performing in 1954. Amazingly, she worked for 20 years as a nurse then came back to recording and performing in her eighties.

Ida Cox (born in 1896, died in 1967), was a vaudeville performer and a pioneering Blues singer who, along with Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith, founded the Female Blues genre which was an early form of Blues music popular in the 1920s. An amalgam of traditional Folk Blues and urban theater music, the style is also known as Vaudeville blues. A savvy businesswoman, Cox served as her own manager and producer, and enjoyed a lucrative career. Marion Harris (born in 1896, died in 1944), became one of the first white female singers to record the Blues. She also appeared in a few movies.

Ethel Waters (born in 1896 or 1900, died in 1977) was a singer and an actress. At the age of 17, billing herself as “Sweet Mama Stringbean,” Waters was singing professionally in Baltimore, Maryland. It was there that she became the first woman to sing the W.C. Handy classic “St. Louis Blues” – a composition which introduced the Blue Note into western musical literature – on the stage. After roles in Broadway revues and musicals, in 1933, Waters appeared in Irving Berlin’s musical, As Thousands Cheer, her first departure from shows with all-black casts. Her rendition of “Heat Wave” in that show linked the song permanently to her. Considered one of the great Blues singers, Waters also performed and recorded with such Jazz greats as Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. Two of her other signature songs are “Dinah” and “Stormy Weather “.

Alberta Hunter

Ida Cox

Memphis Minnie was born in 1897 and died in 1973. Female Blues singers seldom recorded as guitar players and female guitar players (such as Rosetta Tharpe and Sister O.M. Terrell) were seldom recorded playing Blues. Excluding contemporary artists, the most notable exception to this pattern was Memphis Minnie. She was the most popular and prolific blueswoman outside the vaudeville tradition who earned the respect of critics, the support of record-buying fans, and the unqualified praise of the Blues artists she worked with throughout her long career. She recorded for Columbia, Vocalion, Bluebird, OKeh, Regal, Checker, and JOB. Her best work consisted of deep Blues like “Moaning The Blues”.

Sippie Wallace (born in 1898, died in 1986), carried on the tradition of Texas-styled Blues that emphasized risqué lyrics and rough-cut, rural vocal phrasing rather than the sophisticated accents of the era’s more cosmopolitan Blues singers. Wallace’s first recorded songs, “Shorty George” and “Up The Country Blues,” sold well enough to make Wallace a Blues star in the early 1920s.

Koko Taylor (born in 1928, died 2009) became known as the “Queen of the Blues.” She was known primarily for her rough and powerful vocals and traditional blues stylings. In the late 1950s, she began singing in Chicago Blues clubs and was spotted by the great Blues composer Willie Dixon in 1962, leading to larger venues and her first recording contract. In 1965, Taylor was signed by Chicagos’ Chess Records, the premiere lable for Blues music, for which her single, Wang Dang Doodle (written by Dixon, and a hit for Howlin’ Wolf five years earlier) became a major hit, reaching number four on the R&B chart in 1966 and selling a million copies. After her recovery from a near-fatal car crash in 1989, the 1990s found Taylor in movies such as Blues Brothers 2000.

Memphis Minnie

She Was Also an Accomplished Gituarist
Sippi Wallace

Koko Taylor

 

It must be noted that Katie Crippen, Edith Wilson, and Esther Bigeou, among others, made their first recordings before the end of 1921. These Blues recordings were typically labeled as “race records” to distinguish them from records sold to white audiences. Nonetheless, the recordings of some of the classic female Blues singers were purchased by white buyers as well. As has been the case with all genres of Afro-American music from Ragtime to Hip Hop, for black music has been the sound track for the American saga. “America as she is swung” as the brilliant blues philospher Albert Murray put it.

Other classic Blues singers, such as Clara Smith, and Sara Martin, who recorded extensively until the end of the 1920s These early Blues singers were an influence on later singers such as Mahalia Jackson and Janis Joplin. These Blues women’s contributions to the genre included “increased improvisation on melodic lines, unusual phrasing which altered the emphasis and impact of the lyrics, and vocal dramatics using shouts, groans, moans, and wails. The Blues women thus effected changes in other types of popular singing that had spin-offs in Jazz, Broadway musicals, torch songs of the 1930s and 1940s, Gospel, Rhythm and Blues, and eventually Rock and Roll.”

Listen to the Broadcast

At

https://www.wbai.org/archive/program/episode/?id=5904

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Playthell Benjamin

Midnight Ravers

WBAI FM 99.5

New York, 9/20/2019

Listen to the Blues Diva’s Wail

Ma Rainey

“See See Rider”

Bessie Smith

The St. Louis Blues

 

Mamie Smith

 

Ethel Waters

Stormy Weather

 

Alberta Hunter

My Man is Such a Handy Man

A Risque Double Entendre Song

Memphis Minnie

I’m Sellin my Pork Chops but Giving my Gravy Away

A Risque Double Entendre Song
Hoodoo Lady

Here Minnie’s Superb Gituar Style Can be Heard

Ida Cox

Lawdy Lawdy Blues

 

Sippi Wallac

Women Be Wise…Keep Yo Mouth Shut!

 

 

Billy Holiday and Louis Armstrong

“Farewell to Storyville”