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

Article #41: Sharing My Sheroes

This past May, the Blues Foundation held its 30th Annual Blues Music Awards (formerly known as the W. C. Handy Awards). I was honored to be a part of this celebration in three ways:

First, I was to induct Alberta Hunter's "Amtrak Blues" recording into the Blues Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, my plane was delayed due to storms in Atlanta. But... there was a back-up plan. My son, Juno, who was attending with me, was on a different airline and arrived safely and on time. I gave him a rough outline of my speech over the phone and he aced it! By the time I arrived, everyone was congratulating me on what a fine job my son had done. The nicest thing is that I knew he was totally capable.

Secondly, I was to perform on the Awards show. And perform I did -- "Queer Blues," "Honest I Do" as a duet with Resa Gibbs, and "Hetero Twinges." I was told it was a "ground breaking" performance -- not only because of the nature of the songs, but four out of seven of us in the band are openly gay. It is my understanding that parts of this performance will be posted on YouTube by the Blues Foundation in the near future.

Thirdly, I was asked to write an article about women and the blues for the 30th Anniversary Souvenir Program Book. I didn't want it to be a roll call, nor so "historical" that it was a chore to read. Instead, I opted to try to capture the spirit of my sheroes. I'm glad to have this opportunity to share the article with you:

Sharing My Sheroes

Every time I enter the studio, I bring my mojo with me – a photo of Big Mama Thornton. Any time I need to focus, I look at her. She stares back at me and says, "Get it right, bitch."

At home, I walk up my hallway, pass my guitars, pass pictures on the wall. Alberta Hunter goes, "pssst." I look at her. She looks at me and slyly winks her eye. Not only do I see, but I also hear the twinkle in her eye.

I watch a video clip of Ruth Brown. My mind reflects on the time I met her at the then Handy Awards and sat at her feet as she held us spellbound over a three-hour lunch. After that time, she always called me "Miss Uppity" – reeking with the uppityness that I was supposed to wear. Her words still echo in my mind. I hear her... often.

Something about these women speaks to my core – the directness, the joie de vivre, the style. These blues women – all distinctly different, yet somehow the same to me. I'm not sure how they found me, but they did. I'm not a scholar, so I can't tell you about them in that fashion. However, I do know something about the spirit that sometimes honors me by possession.

It was something about that spirit that resonated in so many hearts when Mamie Smith recorded "Crazy Blues" in 1920. 80,000 copies were sold in one month (don't we wish for such today?) – when many folks didn't even have record players. This one recording, by a woman, set the stage that made commercial music viable – not just blues, but basically all music. It's been suggested that Mamie Smith was music's Rosa Parks.

This spirit, captured on wax, gave off magnificent reflections. I think of the blues as the poor person's psychiatrist. I believe that the blues woman of that era could be thought of as the poor woman's psychiatrist – offering advice, ways to cope with daily struggles, ways to live and not merely survive – as only one woman could speak to another.

Thus, the blues woman often found humor in the pain. She was often the "wild woman" deviating from the norm – unashamed and unafraid to lay her soul bare. Oftimes she left home in search of a better life – a life more meaningful to her.

These early blues women documented the history of working class black women. They 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. Many of these women were fiercely independent.

Musically, they 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 in order to bring their stories to life. They did it first.

Many were model businesswomen – running a full tour in the face of daunting racism and discrimination. I dare say that Bessie Smith was the Oprah of the day – not just in terms of her ability to empower women with her music, but also because she was able to buy her own railroad cars to house and transport her cast.

This spirit was, in one word, courageous:

They had the courage to leave home to find a better life -- like Alberta Hunter and Memphis Minnie and Big Mama Thornton.

They had the courage to sing of the hardships exclusive to women -- like Lucille Bogan's "Tricks Ain't Walking" & "B.D. Woman's Blues" and Ma Rainey's "Black Eyed Blues."

They had the courage to play instruments "like a man" – like Sister Rosetta Tharpe who even took her music from the church and put it on the night club stage.

They had the courage to set the wildest of styles -- like horsehair wigs and bugle bead gowns, necklaces of gold coins and diamond teeth or, in the other direction, like Gladys Bentley, in men's top hat and tails.

They had the courage to stand up against America's racism and not back down -- like the legend of Bessie Smith single-handedly confronting the Ku Klux Klan.

They had the courage to do a lot of living – whether good or bad. Quoting Billie Holiday, "We try to live 100 days in one day." I've heard it said that the difference between religious people and spiritual people is that religious people fear going to hell. Spiritual people have already been there. Blues is spiritual music.

They had the courage to face the daily discrimination and degradation of life on the road and the TOBA (Theater Owners' Booking Association = Tough On Black Asses). There were no "Holiday Inns". There were no neat "sanitary supplies" and no "rest stops." They were tough enough to endure, and strong enough to sing without amplification.

They had the courage to let their hearts bleed. . . on stage – for themselves and for others. One only has to listen to "Nobody Knows the Way I Feel This Morning" – whether with the powerful tone of Sippie Wallace or the delicate moan of Dinah Washington.

I could go on, but suffice it to say that from these spirit-filled courageous women, we can trace the evolution of today's blues women. We have dedicated ourselves to telling our present day stories – resonating with the same truth, the same perspectives, the same musical magic, the same charisma.

Of course, times have changed, topics have changed, civil rights for blacks and women have advanced. For me, Rosetta Reitz was one who helped to champion this advancement for women's rights. Because of her Independent Women's Blues series, many contemporary blues women have been able to directly access this spirit and, in turn, use it to empower other women. Rosetta passed in 2008. She, too, is my shero.

Present day blues women are proud to give voice to this music of liberation – whether to get the pain out or to assist in the shaking of one's ass. While only 2 or 3 instrumentalists were nominated 30 years ago, today many nominees can "run with the big dogs!" I could call roll, but truly, there's not space enough. When we witness this year's youngest nominee, pre-teen Taya Perry of Homemade Jamz, we know this spirit will continue to grow, to inspire, to empower. The legacy lives!

Let us drink deep from the well of our foremothers. As we travel and live the life of blues women, following our chosen paths, let us not whine about hotel accommodations, cold showers, hot flashes, fast food, bad sound systems, cramps & colds, tight plane seats, poor pay, etc. Of course, we will continue the fight for equality, but the whining's got to go. Think of what our foremothers lived through. Think of their indomitable and resilient spirits. Think of our inheritance and call upon the spirit of our sheroes. Then go forth and kick ass!!