Sunday, March 22, 2015

When Women Sang The Blues For Keeps-With Ethel Waters In Mind


Lightning Hopkins the old Texas country blues player famously (or infamously depending on your perspective) once said when asked to define the blues that “the blues ain’t nothing but your good girl on your mind.” Personally more times than I can count that statement rang true, rang true about the blues too. Of course women can, and did, turn that around back in the days when black women dominated the  blues circuit by saying that some “no good” man was on her mind (although Bessie Smith turned that around on at least one song when she was moaning for her lost good man Hustlin’ Dan). All of this to say that blues, male or female was, is, a particularly important part of the American songbook and back in the 1960s folk minute along with the “discovery” of old male country blues singers like Lightning, Sleepy John Estes, Son House, Bukka White, Skip James and above all Mississippi John Hurt  and the reemergence of electric blues stars like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf a whole galaxy of female black blues singers came in their own, again. The likes of Bessie Smith, a number of other last name Smith women, Memphis Minnie, Sippy Wallace, Alberta Hunter and the singer here Ethel Waters.                

Above I mentioned above these women came into again because back in the 1920s and 1930s these woman were headliners in their own right at a time when the blues, at least on the circuit, was more than likely to be sung by female singers, mainly in the barrelhouse style. And Ethel Waters held her own in that genre. But she was also able to sing Broadway tunes, torch songs, and a whole lot more, whatever was put it front of her it seemed. Of course despite all that ability some blacks, blacks who had the wherewithal, exiled themselves from America, exiled themselves from Mister James Crow then in its height and went like Josephine Baker famously did to Europe, mainly to Paris where they were probably treated the best although given France’s colonial power status especially in Africa that statement has to be qualified. But here or in Europe Ethel Waters showed her stuff.       

The best example I can give of that premise is a song from this album  Am I Blue made famous in the film adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have And Have Not where songwriter Hoagy Carmichael and Lauren Bacall do their version. Another version, a torchy one which gave me the feeling the person could actually be blue, had been by the legendary Billie Holiday. Ethel Waters’ take is to do a lively version shaking those old blues away, banishing them from her mind. Must have been that her “no good” man finally did right. Enough said.        

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