America’s very first rush of popular record buying was ignited in the twenties by the talents of black female blues artists telling it like it was, is and damn well ought to be. Folks just had to have it, at home and in dirt-floor juke joints. Call them the true Mothers of Invention–blues pioneers whose echos can be heard in the primmest, Orlon’d girl groups of the sixties as well as today’s most avant female MCs.
Like the best of rock, theirs was not a studied sound. Largely recorded in the south, in makeshift studios, they were strong women singing hard truths in a twelve-bar blues format. That three-line stanza song form came across the Atlantic Ocean and north along the Mississippi delta; it is the root of nearly all pop, from rhythm and blues to acid rock to reggae to rap. And like the drums that first thrummed it across West African skies, it was talking music.
In the nineties, African-American women could swap truths in spirited, Oprah-inspired reading groups called Go On Girl. But listen to Ma Rainey warn “Trust No Man,” Mae Glover declare “I Ain’t Givin’ Nobody None,” or Ida Cox sing “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues,” and it’s clear these women weren’t waiting to exhale. They could blow a lyric and a feeling from Augusta to Kansas City under conditions that would make today’s divas bolt for cover under the massage table. Stylists? Maybe some crone heating a hair iron in an alley behind those colored-only boardinghouses. Security? A razor laced to the instep of a dainty boot.
I found the most vivid account of a traveling woman’s trials and compulsions by chance at a used-book sale. I paid a quarter for my dusty copy of His Eye Is on the Sparrow, the long out-of-print autobiography of Ethel Waters. It was published in 1951, when she was fifty-one and an accomplished actress with Broadway credits like “A Member of the Wedding.” But Waters, whose Dickensian first line (“I never was a child.”) unspools into a harrowing but matter-of-fact narrative, began as a teenage blues singer called Sweet Mama Stringbean.
From the outset, life had offered Waters little to sing about; she was the result of the violent rape of her thirteen-year-old mother, who was understandably unfit to raise her. She spent much of her childhood in the care of two alcoholic aunts. Waters wrote that her own compositions came naturally, with such blues all around her: “I also believe that [my audiences] were intrigued by my characterizations which I drew from real life. I’d hear a couple in another flat arguing, for instance. Their voices would come up the airshaft and I’d listen, making up stories about their spats and their love life. I could hear such an argument in the afternoon and that night sing a whole song about it.”
Sweet Mama Stringbean delivered odes to joy as well. They came with the help of the debonair Harlem enablers she called the “hot piano boys”–men with knowing smiles and quicksilver fingers in the mold of Jimmy Johnson: “Men like [Johnson], Willie (The Lion) Smith, and Charlie Johnson could make you sing until your tonsils fell out. Because you wanted to sing. They stirred you into joy and wild ecstasy. They could make you cry. And you’d do anything and work until you dropped for such musicians.”
It stands to reason that on the rough and ready Theater Owners Booking Association (also known as Toby Time or Tough On Black Asses), a black vaudeville circuit covering most southern cities, the best rose to the top on vocal firepower and strength of character. Ma Rainey was born to a pair of road-toughened minstrel troupers and at eighteen married William “Pa” Rainey, who took her on the road working levee camps, tent shows and cabarets. They were billed as “Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues.”
Ma’s massacres are now credited as the crucial link between rural southern blues and the more sophisticated versions later sung by Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters. Ma’s delivery was direct, down-home and folksy–pure country. But she was professional. And her presentation of self prefigured rock’s most outrageous impulses for puttin’ on the glitz. Starting at the top with stiff horsehair wigs framing her battered face, Ma accessorized with a brio that would make those Spice Girls gasp. Amid the floaty feather boas hung a chain weighted by $20 gold pieces. A contemporary described the vision: “Ma was loaded with diamonds, in her ears, round her neck, in a tiara on her head. Both hands were full of rocks, too: her hair was wild and she had gold teeth! What a sight!”
By all accounts, her generosity was also multi-karat. Debunking old myths that had Ma “kidnapping” the young Bessie Smith for a traveling show, Chris Albertson’s landmark 1972 biography of Smith reveals that the older Rainey was, in fact, “more like a mother to her” when they both toured with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels.
Bessie Smith lived just forty-three years, from 1894 to 1937. Yet for the next half century, in legend, liner notes and an Albee play (The Death of Bessie Smith), she would be held up as the archetype of Woman Wronged. Even her death was shrouded in a myth that had her bleeding to death after a car crash when a white hospital refused her admission. With careful scholarship, including interviews with Dr. Hugh Smith, a Memphis orthopedic surgeon who came upon the accident and treated Bessie at the scene, and documentation from the black hospital where she died, Albertson set the record straight. The black ambulance driver never took her to a white facility; both Smith and the hospital confirmed that her right side was virtually crushed; several hours after the crash, she died of shock and multiple internal injuries. Smith was revealed as a woman with plenty of trouble in mind: a sizable drinking problem, a penchant for abusive men, ceaseless run-ins with unchecked racism. But she was never a passive victim; in her music and her life, Bessie Smith preferred dealing from strength.
For much of her career, she could command top rates. Despite the historic inequities of male and female salaries, blueswomen were initially paid better than men. The first black blues vocal recording, notes Greil Marcus in Invisible Republic, was Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues,” released in 1920. It sold over a million copies in its first year. In much the same way, “Fiddling” John Carson enthralled white “hillbilly” buyers with “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane” three years later. This was a populist explosion, a self-discovery of sorts for poor black and white southern audiences, according to Marcus, who writes, “Many copies of these records were bought by people without phonographs. They bought the discs as talismans of their own existence; they could hold these objects in their hands and feel their own lives dramatized.” To his amazement, James Brown encountered a similar phenomenon traveling in Africa half a century later. Leon Austin, a member of his entourage in Zaire, described it for me: “They come out of mud shacks with James Brown albums, don’t never play them, no electricity, for sure no Victrola. But they know who is James Brown.”
Just as they knew Bessie Smith. Her voice and her renown could earn her as much as $200 a side–nearly fifteen times the average fee for a black male singer at the time. This is not to say she wasn’t cheated, over and over. But if Bessie got wind of it, you’d do well to have your insurance paid up. Having found that her pianist, Clarence Williams, had appropriated $375 that was rightfully hers, Bessie–close to two hundred pounds of handsome, towering outrage–cornered Williams, pounded him to the floor and kept whaling at him until he tore up their lopsided contract.
Racism was no match for Bessie in a mood. Put on display in Manhattan by a patronizing white grande dame who demanded a kiss in front of her society pals, Bessie knocked Madame on her astonished keester. On a southern swing with her tent show, Bessie was informed that hooded Ku Klux Klan terrorists were at work outside, sabotaging the poles. “Some shit!” she snorted, and according to Albertson’s sources, she ran outside and faced them down alone, bellowing, “What the fuck you think you’re doin’? I’ll get the whole damn tent out here if I have to. You just pick up them sheets and run.” And they did.
Among her contemporaries, Bessie was a diva. When she met up with Mama Stringbean at 91 Decatur Street, a joint in Atlanta, she expected the younger woman to call her “Miss Bessie.” And she had some instructions for the theater owners as well. Ethel Waters recalled: “Bessie’s shouting brought worship wherever she worked. She was getting fifty to seventy-five dollars a week, big money for our kind of vaudeville. The money thrown to her [onstage] brought this to a couple of hundred dollars a week. Bessie, like an opera singer, carried her own claque with her. These plants in the audience were paid to throw up coins and bills to get the appreciation money going without delay the moment she finished her first number. And if Bessie ordered it, her followers would put the finger on you and run you right off the stage and out of sight, maybe forever.
“Bessie was in a pretty good position to dictate to the managers. She had me put on my act for her and said I was a long goody. But she also told the men who ran No. 91 that she didn’t want anyone else to sing the blues.”
Like some sixties performers now confined to oldies shows, Bessie Smith suffered a dimming of her star when the Depression flattened box offices in the early thirties and restless, sophisticated black audiences cast off the blues as hopelessly old-fashioned. She sold the beloved private railroad car that had spared her some of the discomforts and humiliations of segregated travel, and took gigs in the lowest gin mills again. But when Bessie died in 1937, her career had been back on the rise. She had no reservations about joining the Swing Era. Producer John Hammond had plans to record her with Basie on piano; Lionel Hampton wanted to work with her; and she had a new film contract. The hysteria at her Philadelphia funeral–not unlike that which surrounded the rites for Supreme Florence Ballard in 1976–was the grief of a community belatedly acknowledging the immensity of her achievement against ridiculous odds.
If Rainey and Smith were the Mother and the Empress, respectively, there was no shortage of titled blueswomen–Little and Big Mamas, Canaries and Queens. For the most part, they were self-ordained. Theirs was a genre where modesty gets you nowhere–mighty Chicago blueswoman Koko Taylor still bills herself, justifiably, as the Earthshaker. Among the more regal originals were Ida Cox, Sippie Wallace, Alberta Hunter, Ethel Waters, Victoria Spivey. Of course, there were scores more; some of their ghostly, piney-woods voices have been respectfully disinterred in archival collections. There’s a lot more desolation than deliverance in Shanachie Records’ two-volume collection, I Can’t Be Satisfied. Listening to it all at once can send you headfirst toward the kitchen oven–or out to kneecap the first man you see. It’s a raucous, ghostly symposium on Women’s Issues in the rural south–everything from Victoria Spivey’s “Dirty T. B. Blues” to Sara Martin’s determined “He’s Never Gonna Throw Me Down.” More lost women–Bertha “Chippie” Hill, Lucille Bogan, Ivy Smith, Madlyn Davis, Rosie Mae Moore, Geeshie Wiley, Ruby Glaze–swoop, soar and moan from the musky retrieved tracks. But just as many fervent shouters remain nameless. The blues may have been about endurance, but the popular music marketplace has always been about change.
Nobody knows that better than B. B. King. When I shipped out on tour with him in 1998, he was celebrating a half century on the road in a tour jacket that proclaimed him “King of the Blues Worldwide.” Making his way as a blues singer had afforded B.B. some less than regal moments–many of which he recounted as his big custom bus rolled on those long hauls between the two-hundred-fifty-plus one-nighters a year he still does, at age seventy-five. One muggy evening, amid an almost biblical plague. of crickets in North Texas, I asked B.B. what he’d seen of the lives of blueswomen over his five decades on the move. He shook his head.
“They’ve had a harder time than most men. A lot of the places we could go, they could not. The juke joints, the start-up places. It wasn’t comfortable for them. There have been many times I’ve had to change clothes behind a sheet ’cause there’s no dressing room. And that’s hard for ladies.”
And sometimes it didn’t matter how well their records sold if they didn’t measure up to other standards. Audiences looked harder at a woman. “Yeah, they were the hitmakers,” said B.B. “But there was another thing you have to think about. Men had more money. They did the work like laboring. So if it was a beautiful woman that could sing, she got a good crowd of men. They would usually bring the ladies with them. But a lot of these women wasn’t pretty women. If they were not, like Big Mama [Thornton], they had to sing good. Very good. Big Mama, if she didn’t have a hit record, she caught H-E-double L.”
He says the chitlin circuit had its own variants on the casting couch: “Most of the promoters, or the people that were in power to give her a push, didn’t. Because they [the promoters] didn’t want them [the women] personally.”
Respect–onstage, in contracts and even in death–would prove maddeningly elusive, even for the greatest of blueswomen. In 1970, a housewife’s letter to The Philadelphia Inquirer called attention to the fact that Bessie Smith’s grave in nearby Mount Lawn Cemetery had lain unmarked for over three decades. The resulting publicity brought pledges from two women to share in the cost of erecting a marker: Juanita Green, a registered nurse who had scrubbed Smith’s floors as a teenager and was by then president of the North Philadelphia NAACP, and Janis Joplin, the white rock singer who swore she owed her own success to Smith’s wellspring blues. The marble headstone–secured at cost ($500) from a sympathetic monument company–was set in place in August of 1970, just two months before Joplin died. Albertson’s account of the rather haphazard if earnest “unveiling” is mindful of its final irony: As no family members were present, Bessie’s epitaph was composed by Columbia Records’ publicity department. At least, he notes, the claim was true:
The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing
It’s no surprise that the echos of early blueswomen would reach contemporary audiences largely through the music of white rockers. Bonnie Raitt virtually apprenticed herself to Sippie Wallace, performing and recording with her. Theirs was a genial, respectful collaboration. But Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, who lived and performed until 1984, did not conceal her irritation over the riches that came to Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin with their remakes of her records “Hound Dog” and “Ball and Chain,” respectively.
Listen to the Solid Smoke live recording of Big Mama singing at the 1979 San Francisco Blues Festival–introducing her own version of “Ball and Chain” by noting that Joplin had had “the nerve to do it”–and you can hear old frustrations crackle through the tumultuous reception. It took several people to help the frail, shockingly thin Thornton to her chair on the stage. In photos of the concert, a man’s pin-striped suit flaps loosely, and beneath her straw cowboy hat, her face is all angles. But the performance is 120-proof as she rocks back in her chair to talk to these little girls about … men. They are shouting with recognition; Big Mama has been there and sent back postcards. Some are weeping for her desiccated womanhood and her outright valor. Vocally, and on harmonica, she gets stronger throughout the set; the crowd is noisily worshipful. Finally, Big Mama roars at one groovy chick who keeps echoing her lines in a Joplinesque whine: “AW SHUDDUP!” She recovers her humor as a fan deposits a watermelon onstage: “I see you givin’ me a San Francisco ham.”
The Lieber & Stoller–penned hit “Hound Dog” made it to #1 on the R&B charts in 1953 for Thornton. But as she grumped to journalist Ralph Gleason: “That song sold over 2 million copies. I got one check for $500 and I never seen another.” Though she wrote “Ball and Chain,” the royalties were assigned to her record company. Big Mama died frail, alcohol-ravaged and poor in a Los Angeles boardinghouse. Other blues musician did respect Thornton’s considerable chops, including her ease on the hitherto unladylike harmonica and drums; the backup band for one of her later albums featured James Cotton and Muddy Waters.
Most serious blues guitarists also acknowledge the gifts of Memphis Minnie (born Lizzie Douglas), who began picking as a five-year-old in 1902 and, when her family moved to Mississippi in 1904, developed a regular habit of running off to Memphis to soak up the Beale Street flavor. At her peak, Minnie played as well or better than any man, once besting Big Bill Broonzy in a contest. She played in parks and streets as well as vaudeville houses, and saw plenty; her blues were full of streetwalkers, dope fiends and doomed consumptives. As Ethel Waters did, Minnie sketched from life; her “Outdoor Blues” is a window-rattling evocation of homelessness during the Depression. But much of her oeuvre consists of twelve-bar tone poems sharply observing domestic life, from making biscuits to making love.
White hillbilly girls knew the blues, too. Theirs were the hardscrabble trials of sharecroppers’ wives and coal miners’ daughters. But nearly four decades before Loretta Lynn warned “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind),” few of them dared to voice it aloud. Early country artists confined themselves to the rather polite conventions of traditional forms–the reels, jigs and laments of their Scottish and Irish antecedents.
The Carter Family–A. P. Carter, his wife, Sara, and their sister-in-law Maybelle Addington Carter–began their remarkable career with “old-timey” tunes. Theirs was a body of folk work so deep and wide that virtually every country star that followed declared they “grew up on the Carters.” The folk revival of the late fifties and early sixties, as well as the stark, reedy strains of today’s “alternative” country, “No Depression” music drew straight from the Carter well. (The name is from the Carter song “They’ll Be No Depression in Heaven.”)
In 1927, the Carters auditioned in Bristol, Tennessee, for a talent scout named Ralph Peer, who had traveled south for the Victor Talking Machine Company of New York City. That first day, A.P.’s car juddered into town with his wife and his brother’s wife, the very pregnant Maybelle, it was a different sound they poured into Peer’s portable equipment. The trio’s voices dominated their instruments; they would usher an age of strong, idiosyncratic vocal performance in southern folk music. In 1928, one of their best-known tunes, the pluckily optimistic “Keep on the Sunny Side,” was a huge hit in the mountains and valleys that had yet to see the bustling prosperity of the Roaring Twenties. But more surprising was the success, earlier in 1928, of their rewrite of a traditional song, “Single Girl, Married Girl.” Sara resisted singing it in the family’s first recording session the previous year; she said she didn’t like the song. But the record man insisted. The lyrics limned the great divide in women’s fates:
Single girl, single girl, she goes to the store and buys. Married girl, married girl, she rocks the cradle and cries. Single girl, single girl, she’s going where she please. Married girl, married girl, a baby on her knees.
Once the original trio disbanded, it was “Mother” Maybelle who kept the Carter name in country, enlisting her daughters Helen, Anita and June (who later married Johnny Cash). Though June would later inject a comic, flirty element, the quartet remained basic as biscuits and resolutely God-fearing. There is a piece of black-and-white TV footage of a young Cash and the Carter women, accompanied by just a mandolin and Maybelle’s autoharp, singing what the slick-haired announcer calls “an old sacred song,” “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)?” The performance is an Appalachian act of faith so solemn and chilling it all but vaporizes the hokey, rifle-hung fireplace that serves as a backdrop. The people’s music was never so direct as when Cash’s ragged baritone thunders: Were you there?
Cash and the women do not look at one another or the camera; when tall, beautiful Anita–the one Elvis was mad for–looses her piercing keen atop it all, every piney woods terror that ever ringed Clinch Mountain, Virginia, rises up with it. Her voice is at once gorgeous and wounding; you can’t tell if what she sees is salvation or devastation, if she is in a state of grace or mortal dread. It’s a hillbilly righteousness torn straight from the strident shakers who washed up at Plymouth. As the other singers fall in, sequentially, in seamless harmony, on the word “tremble,” the listener does just that.
There is no question, watching any of those preserved performances, that Mother Maybelle was the rock, and perhaps the seer. Through it all, on corny TV hoedowns and plain home-movie footage of family gatherings, Maybelle’s gaze seems fixed on a point no one else can see. Like her sister-in-law Sara, she is almost expressionless in a sharp-planed, American Gothic way, rarely smiling until she seems to remember she probably should. But her right hand is never less than eloquent. Generations of spandexed ax-men (and women) owe much of the reverence now accorded to lead guitar to Maybelle’s innovative playing. Modestly, she held her own amid guitar greats. Says Johnny Cash, “Maybelle was friendly with and admired Chet Atkins, Merle Travis and Django Reinhardt. Her Appalachian style, which she called Carter Scratch, is not easily imitated.”
Nor was it easily learned. Mother Maybelle’s “simple” technique combined melody and rhythm strumming on the same instrument. Study her performance legerdemain and you see a right thumb as busy as the forefingers but keeping its own beat. In his 1997 autobiography, Cash, Johnny explained it this way: “In purely musical, not cultural, terms, Maybelle was more influential than either Lennon or Dylan. She figured out a way to pick the melody on the lower strings of her guitar while she strummed chords on the higher strings, thereby creating the most influential guitar style in country and folk music.”
Maybelle, as her old fishing buddy Cash describes her, was an “absurdly” humble person: “She never grasped how important she was to the music, how revered she was by everyone from Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan to Emmylou Harris and Michelle Shocked. We’d tell her time and time again, but she’d just say, `Naw, that’s just stuff I did a long time ago.’”
Maybelle prefered life’s simple pleasures. She’d cook for all comers, and she loved to fish. Recalled Cash: “She was a worm baiter; she wasn’t afraid to pick that worm up and get the hook through it the way so many people are.” She could also look through your soul, according to those who knew her. Maybelle’s eyes were huge and dark-lashed beneath long, expressive brows, but the centers were a striking light blue. Said her daughter Anita, “The first thing you saw about my mother were her eyes. Her eyes just jumped out at you. Liz Taylor had that, I’ve heard. Mama’s eyes were so sweet. She never said much, though. When somebody would do something they shouldn’t she’d just stare at them.” According to Anita, country legend Hank Snow caught the effect best when he declared, “Mama just whips us to death with those eyes.”
Maybelle and her quiet ways were a saving balm to the troubled men she encountered on the road, like the hard-drinking, tubercular Jimmie Rodgers, who sang and behaved with sure knowledge of his early doom. When he turned up nearly insensible for one recording session, Maybelle stepped up and played Rodgers’s guitar parts for him. She later said she endured his wild behavior and volcanic temper because “he was dying and everybody knew it. He was taking drugs and drinking because of the pain, and it just made him a little bit crazy.” As gentle confessor to other road-ravaged country boys like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, Mother Maybelle did her best to live up to the name. She listened, she counseled–and she always forgave.
If the Carters virtually started the country-music industry, it was Kitty Wells, the young wife of another hillbilly singer, who finally, emphatically trashed Nashville’s sexist bromide that solo girl singers couldn’t sell records. Kitty’s 1952 “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” laid into the devilment of two-timing married men with a double shot of hurt and sass. It flew to #1 on the country charts. As country’s first bona fide female star, Wells blazed a ruffles-and-rhinestone path for a host of Lorettas, Tammys, Dollys and Rebas.
Copyright ” 2001 by Gerri Hirshey. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.