Let’s hear it for the girls! Celebrating Blues Women

Written by Claire Snook

Ahhhh, the blues. There’s something about this music that has captured the imagination and interest of millions of people across the world and decades. The idea of a lone man with his guitar, hobo-ing around the Mississippi Delta or playing in the dark clubs of Chicago and New York, trying to make ends meet with their music is an established one that runs deep in modern culture.

That image was hugely reinforced with the rediscovery of blues in the sixties, with encouragement from promoters to appeal to a new audience, and it worked. The careers of many bluesmen were relaunched and they got to travel the world, playing the music they’d written and sung twenty or thirty or even forty years earlier.

Obviously great to see these musicians finally recognised!

But what about the women?

Women in Blues Continue reading

Vaudeville Blues: The Classic Female Singers

Written by Phill Brown


ma-rainy-black-bottomWhen we talk about the great grandfolks of the blues, our minds hit on that image: the lonesome guy with a guitar. Those legends of the nineteen-thirties shouted their woes about the lot-of-man down the ages with voices that cross ages and nations. I’ll be the first to admit they’re my link to the blues when I started listening to the 70s rock artists who shamelessly (or gloriously if you prefer) covered their tracks. But these guys were trailing on others’ blazes – the first generation of commercially successful blues artists were women.

African-American singers were a big thing in the clubs of the city and the backwater bars of the deep south long before recorded music was. Female singers would tour the towns with their entourage, including sideshows and dance acts as well as singers and their bands.

12-days-christmas-lights-opacity

Mamie Smith and her band

Mamie Smith was a club singer in Harlem for 7 years by the time she cut “Crazy blues” in 1920- a lazy New Orleans-style jazzy lament that paved the way for all the commercial recordings that came after.

Mamie’s restrained club-singing was soon outpaced by artists with a raw sound. The public had a taste for the visceral, and Bessie Smith (no relation as far as I’m aware) provided it. Songs like “T’aint nobody’s business if I do,” “I need a little sugar in my bowl,” “Gin house blues” and “On revival day” are all pretty familiar in the blues and swing dance scenes today (or to anyone familiar with Nina Simone’s catalogue recorded some 30-40 years later).

Smith’s recordings are melodic, with her gut-driven vocals retaining a crooning quality and a beat that’s often heavily “pregnant” – the piano left-hand lags way behind the vocals to give a light swing on many tracks. Her songs are well covered by later bands, and have the same sorts of themes as you expect from her male blues counterparts: trouble with the partner, trouble with drink and thoughts of lust or violence.

I have to admit, I find some of this early aesthetic hard work – you have to get ‘your ear in’ on the old recording quality and five songs in a row about domestic violence is about my limit. But you’ll be missing out on some crackers if you don’t put that effort in.

My Butcher Man

My Butcher Man

As with the wider body of blues music in general, the early blues ladies aren’t just about battles with mortality or the bottom of the bottle. I’ve recently been working my way down the recordings of Memphis Minnie, who was no less prolific than Bessie Smith.

Minnie had been performing with banjo, guitar and voice since before she was ten, but didn’t get to record until 1929. Her style is much more “country”, with bouncy little rhythms and an upbeat tone. Her content tends more toward the raunchy – songs like “Dirty Mother for You,” “Hot stuff,” and “Living the best I can” are all sung with a wink and a nod. “My Butcher Man” is definitely about a meat vendor. Even that sounds dodgy.

Mamie Smith's Jazz Hounds

Mamie Smith’s Jazz Hounds

Minnie recorded and gigged around Chicago with the likes of Big Bill Broonzy, and her recording history is littered with musical partnerships. If you want a silly, joyous, chatty listen, give “New Orleans Stop Time” a go. Her accessible song style led to songs like “What’s the Matter with the Mill” and “When the Levee Breaks” being covered by Muddy Waters and Led Zeppelin (Zeppelin even gave her their rarest of compliments: acknowledging her in their sleeve notes).

12-days-christmas-lights-opacity

Lil Green

My final woman of the early blues was a touch later, cutting tracks from the mid-1930s as a young club singer – Lil Green.

lil-green-milt-larkin

Lil Green and orchestra

Green also did an act with Bill Broonzy and her songs have the structure and tone of being more of a pop song. I think of her as ‘Billie Holiday-lite”, as there’s some similarity in the voice but without the full gut wrench that sets your teeth on edge with Holiday. weedsmokers-dreamGreen’s tracks tend to tread the line between swing and blues, none more so than in the first recording of “Why Don’t You Do Right” since it was re-written from the original Harlem Hamfats song “Weed smokers Dream”. Peggy Lee later claimed that she had Lil Green’s record on constantly in her dressing room, so Benny Goodman decided to do a new arrangement which set its status as a Jazz standard for evermore. But her on-beat catchy tunes are a foot tapper for dance enthusiast and novice alike.

12-days-christmas-lights-opacity

So there you have it, a quick whistle-stop of some of my early faves. There’s far more to them all than I can cover, but I thoroughly recommend you wrap your ears around some of their tracks and have a little shuffle ’round your living room.


12-days-christmas-logoMany thanks to the author Phill Brown

Fine and Mellow | Lady Day

Written by Nicole Trissell


Billie Holiday (born Eleanora Fagan in 1915), nicknamed “Lady Day”, sang incredible jazz tunes primarily during the 30s and 40s in the United States, at the height of American swing and jazz. She based herself in New York City, where she started singing in Harlem nightclubs as a young teen, and eventually to sold-out concerts at Carnegie Hall.

Billie Holiday is celebrated as one of the most talented jazz singers who ever lived. Her timing, her sense of improvisation, her charm and style captivated audiences and earned her huge respect from other musicians.

But the life of a travelling star was hard, especially when compounded by the trials of pre-civil rights America. Billie Holiday, as one of the highest paid Black singers of the time, was still often asked to enter and leave gigs via the service elevator. This, plus a constant string of unhappy romantic relationships lead to heavy drug use throughout the 40s. This eventually landed her in jail and caused a slow decline in her voice and reputation, and by 1959 cirrhosis of the liver had claimed her life.

12-days-christmas-lights-opacity

CLICK TO Listen along WITH the playlist

Listen and join me on a journey through two decades of Billie Holiday recordings, as I show you some of her music that has touched me the most, as a dancer and a human.

12-days-christmas-lights-opacity

Your Mother’s Son in Law – 1933 recording

billieposeWhile this song is a little on the swing side for those of us of the blues dance persuasion, it is Billie’s first ever recorded song, set down in 1933 and bears listening to.

An interesting thing to note here, it takes more than a full minute for Billie’s singing to join the band already in full swing. It feels like it’s the band that’s the star here, especially the horns. She only sings twice, like an accent, or an additional instrument, but her singing does not feel like a focus.

Let’s Call a Heart a Heart – 1936 recording

Let’s Call a Heart a Heart is one of my favourite Billie songs.

Sentimental and Melancholy – 1937 recording

In both this and the previous song, I love the artistry with which she frolics and tumbles and holds the words.

You Go to My Head – 1938 recording
Yesterdays – 1939 recording
Fine and Mellow – 1939 recording

Fine and Mellow was actually written by Billie Holiday herself, in spite of the fact that she never learned to read music.

God Bless the Child – 1941 recording
Long Gone Blues – 1941 recording

These two are lovely, exquisitely emotive songs, and indicative of the thing that captivated so many audiences. Her voice soars over the rest of the small combo or quiet instrumentation, as the highlighted, soloing instrument, full of expression. In Long Gone Blues especially, compare what her voice does to what the horns do in their solos.

Georgia on My Mind – 1941 recording

This has quickly become my favourite version of this song. Again, there is no comparing to the way she sings, carries the words, bends the notes…

Gloomy Sunday – 1941 recording
Don’t Explain – 1946 recording

Exquisite, soaring torch songs. But as you listen to these two songs, side by side, compare the quality of her voice. All her artistry is still present in both songs, but the five years that passed between these two songs have been hard on Billie’s voice. It gets thinner, more gravely.

Baby, I Don’t Cry Over You – 1946 recording

This song. Just everything about it. It’s carefree, it’s a great, empowering message. “I could have told you, right from the start, no man is man enough to break my heart.” You tell him, girl!

Do Your Duty – 1951 recording

This song is one of the last songs Billie ever recorded. It had extra significance to her, as this was a standard of Bessie Smith, who was one of Billie’s early influences and idols. Personally, I like Bessie’s version better, but it’s kind of fun having these lyrics paired with a big, polished swing band.

12-days-christmas-lights-opacity

Nearing the End

Between these last two songs, Billie dealt with several arrests for narcotics possession, more abusive relationships, and continued drug use. She also was able to play packed houses at huge venues but lost her ability to play in the intimate New York bars and clubs that she loved, due to losing her New York Cabaret Card as part of her legal troubles. After several more years of declining health and career, during which she published her autobiography, she finally passed away from side effects of her chronic drug use.

Her rise was meteoric: fast, bright, and over far too soon.

12-days-christmas-lights-opacity

Controversy

The last piece I want to leave you with was her most controversial, and also the biggest-selling song. The song Strange Fruit was originally written as a poem by teacher Abel Meeropol and speaks through intense imagery of racism and hate crimes. Billie Holiday would sing it at live performances often, on the condition that servers stopped serving, space was made dark, and there was no encore after the weighty performance.

I leave you with a video of Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit.


12-days-christmas-logoMany thanks to the author Nicole Trissell.