Writings, Essays, Lyrics, Musings, Commentary . . .

Article #21: How My New Act Came to Be

So, on September 26, 2003, my classic blues act will debut at Babe's in Richmond. The coming of this event was truly serendipitous (how's that for a $3 word?) and I would like to share the advent. As many readers know, I have been giving presentations on the History of Women in the Blues. Since I have cut back on touring, I decided that I should polish up this presentation and market it to colleges and blues societies within the mid-Atlantic region.

The first part of my polishing required organizing my videos of these wonderful women and deciding which clips to transfer to DVD. I wanted to be able to compare and contrast without having to search for the ‰ spot on the VHS tapes. Also, this would allow me to better customize my presentations. This was no easy task, but after many hours and many dollars, I am quite pleased with the quality.

Secondly, as I actually made the presentations, I realized that a good chunk of my emphasis was on how the blues woman often documents the times. The idea was developed in Angela Davis' book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism. She examines the theory that the only written history of black working class women during the early 1920s and 30s is contained in the blues woman's lyrics.

These women were the first to chronicle topics like prostitution, domestic abuse, alcoholism, infidelity, homosexuality, gender politics, prisons, racism, etc. They were the first to openly talk about sex --its joy and its pain. Musically, these women introduced vocal techniques that gave drama and immediacy to their performances. They would cry, growl, yell, wail, syncopate, slide & slur, bend & break notes, improvise, phrase & rephrase to give added depth and texture to bring their stories to life.

In reviewing my video clips, I knew I did not have visual examples of the lyrical content I was trying to explain. (Of course, the musical content is present regardless of the song.) Further, I knew that many of the original recordings might not fall easily on a new listener's ear. And, the scratches and hisses on a recording from the 20's often make it difficult to hear the lyrics.

Therefore, I decided that I would insert selected songs into the presentation and I would perform them live. . . with piano accompaniment
pre-recorded. I gathered songs like Lucille Bogan's "Tricks Ain't Walking No More" and Ma Rainey's "Black Eyed Blues" and Lil Johnson's "Take It Easy Greasy." I also wanted to perform some of the "chestnuts" like Blu Lu Barker's "Don‚t You Feel My Leg" and Alberta Hunter's version of her own composition, "Down Hearted Blues."

I knew that an incredible piano player, Roddy Barnes, had moved to my area a few months earlier. We (Saffire) had met Roddy in the mid-West many years ago. He often sat in with us. We stayed in touch over the years and also recorded two of his compositions, "Because of You" on Cleaning House and "Let the Gin Do the Talking" on Ain't Gonna Hush!. He moved from Missouri to New Orleans to Austin pursuing his profession. As fate would have it, his pursuit brought him to Richmond, VA. . . 50miles south of Fredericksburg.

Roddy, who is classically trained, can play any genre, but he really has that old-timey sound down. Turns out that he was influenced early on by Bessie Smith's pianists. So it was that I asked him to record some piano tracks for my presentation. We went to Wally Cleaver's studio here in Fredericksburg, recorded 14 songs in an hour and a half. While I only wanted the piano tracks, we decided that I would sing along to mark Roddy's place and to factor in dynamics. When Jeff, the sound engineer, played it back, we were thrilled with what we heard -- classic blues songs clean and clear --classic blues vocals with only classic blues piano.

Jeff burned a piano track CD (i.e., without vocals) for me and I have since used it in my history presentation. BUT, Jeff also burned a vocal-piano CD for us and we listened and listened, again and again. We had something that we truly loved and we felt others would love it too. We made copies for a few friends and their feedback encouraged us to continue. Over the summer, Roddy and I worked to increase our repertoire (we now have about 70 songs) and decided that we would try to get a gig a month during the fall. Thus, September 26th at Babe's.