Nightingales, Warblers, and Other Songbirds

Black Pearls bookHarrison, Daphne Duval. Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s. Rutgers University Press. 1988.

The decade of the 1920’s is known as the classic blues period of jazz history. Much has been written of the groundbreaking music of Louis Armstrong and King Oliver in that period, but it was also a time in which female black blues singers gained notoriety. The most often cited are Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith; the lesser-known include Ida Cox, Sippie Smith, Edith Wilson and others. These singers left the tent show touring circuit and vaudeville performance stage to make breakthroughs in the white-owned phonograph record industry. Record sales soared; but, the roaring times ended with economic depression and the dissolution of many record companies.

The commerce of black performing/recording artists was known as the “race market” and the product “race records”—a time of awkward attempts at promoting and selling activities and results with references to skin color. New releases were promoted by record companies with full page newspaper advertisements introducing “race record” music and artist—illustrations are provided in this book. In the clubs, these women worked the classy Harlem Clubs that catered to the moneyed white audiences. The revues they starred in on Broadway were usually all black performer presentations—these women could act or dance or offer comedy in addition to vocalize the blues. The advent of radio programming in 1925 had a mixed effect, but clearly introduced this music to a new and large audience. The blues queens had available outlets to please any category of audience—young or old, black or white, and rich or poor.

Author Harrison, an academician, describes the blues music as a reflection of life experience of women in the 1920s. Love and sex; reprisal and violence; poverty and discrimination are common themes. How was this expressed in song?

In Bessie Smith’s tune “Dying by the Hour” we hear:
It’s an old story, every time it’s a doggone man.

Ida Cox from “Georgia Hound Blues”:
Like a hound, you chase all night and you don’t come home till morn.
Pretty daddy, the undertaker has got your last (chase) on.

And, in “Pink Slip Blues,” Cox sings of terminated welfare benefits:
After four long years, Uncle Sam done put me on the shelf,
‘Cause that little pink slip means you got to go for yourself.

Harrison discusses these song lyrics in a lengthy chapter entitled “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues” and categorizes them as travelling blues, drinking blues, dope head blues, street walking blues, and raunchy. She provides many examples of each: Clara Smith sings of the “rambling bug” in the tune “L & N Blues”; Bessie Smith’s “Gin Mill Blues” is touted; Margaret Johnson finds solace in the bottle with “Dead Drunk Blues”; Chippie Hill copies Ma Rainey’s lament on the oldest profession in “Hustlin Blues.” These lyrics were often penned by men, but the vocalist’s manner of expression, inflections, and body language enabled the female listener to identify with the reality in their own lives. The raw lyrics that flowed freely in the tent shows were cleaned up in the recording studio; but, in the clubs the boldness was delivered to appreciative audiences.

Not to be forgotten here though is the singer’s expression of independence that comes through in most recordings. Harrison properly concludes this chapter of the book with reference to the most desirable characteristic in my view—self-reliance. From “Trouble in Mind Blues” sung by Chippie Hill,

I’m alone every night and the lights are sinking low,
I’ve never had so much trouble in my life before.
My good man, he done quit me and there’s talking all over town,
And, I know my baby, you can’t keep a good woman down.

Blues women had to contend with the interference of church institutions and other self-righteous units seeking to derail their voice from stage and airwaves. The demise of live performances in the 1930’s depression era, however, found many returning to the church with their raunchy song vocals a thing of the past and their morals no longer subject to scrutiny; a few became music leaders and sang freely in church as they had done in their youth.

Disagreements with recording companies, who claimed exclusive rights to the singers, were common. Musicians defeated this by recording with other companies under pseudonyms. For example, Ida Cox, who recorded seventy-eight sides for Paramount during the decade, also recorded for Harmograph and Silvertone under a variety of fictitious names. Alberta Hunter recorded 100-plus sides for seven different companies under contract, and went underground to record for Harmograph, Silvertone, Gennet, Buddy, and Puritan labels using the names May Alix, Helen Roberts, Josephine Beatty, or Alberta Prime. Difficult to assign blame here; so, in general one raises a brow toward all participants in the industry—greedy companies and slippery performers. Where do your sentiments lie?

Harrison interviewed four blues women who survived into the 1980s, and for enlightening detail focuses on their lives with full chapters honoring each–Sippie Wallace born in 1898 in Houston; Victoria “Vickie” Spivey born 1906 in Houston; Edith Wilson born 1896 in Louisville; and Alberta Hunter born 1895 in Memphis. Here is a sampling:

“(Edith) Wilson was a singer who sang rather than emoted (no moans or wails); she enjoyed what her voice could do and did it. A blues song was a song, not her life story. . . although the lack of gripping emotional intensity led most critics to discount her as a blues singer, Wilson’s singing satisfied the type of audiences for whom she sang—whites who frequented “sophisticated” Harlem cabarets run by the underworld mobsters (166).”

Writing of Alberta Hunter, “She communicated with the audience intimately on one level but warned it to keep its distance because ‘I don’t take no mess’; yet this was usually coupled with a wry sense of humor. . . She could belt out the blues with the best of the sisters and she could sing a ballad that pleased the nightclub and theater crowds (208).” Hunter was singing and composing songs into her eighties, and performed in New York’s Greenwich Village at a club she sang in fifty years earlier.

The publisher categorizes this book as “Women’s Studies/Music/Black Studies (back cover, top).” Used copies of this book, originally published in 1988, may be acquired in trade paper format for approximately one dollar (plus shipping and handling) online—this edition is distinguished by the bright pink cover. Included in the book are 29 illustrations–blues singer photographs, newspaper ads announcing new releases, record jackets, sheet music covers, and song sheets. The author provides more than four hundred evidentiary footnotes including the oft-cited periodical sources Chicago Defender, The Afro-American, and Melody Maker.

1 Comment

Filed under Book Review, Uncategorized

One response to “Nightingales, Warblers, and Other Songbirds

  1. Peter Furlong

    Reblogged this on Peter on Music.

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