At its finest, The Blues is all about presenting the pain of the soul through a song and actually causing a physical reaction. You really feel it. Then there is the gritty message that the only way out is through and that no matter how bad it is you’re going to be okay. (Remember Koko Taylor’s statement about being “down in the basement, far as you go.”) This channeling of pain into a song is a kind of skill, a triumph over adversity in itself. Without this, the Blues would just be a depressing catalogue of life’s agonies and love gone bad.
(And I’m pretty sure that no one is going to get up and shake their groove thang after considering that …)
Women of course know all about pain, particularly of the romantic variety yet curiously, they are not automatically associated with the blues in the same way that men are. Many of the top blues singers of the twenties and thirties were women: Bessie Smith, Sippie Wallace and Ma Rainey amongst others. Their interpretation of the blues ranged from the playfully suggestive (the lyrics can be really vivid and quite witty) to the chillingly mournful – but their contribution to shaping the genre was immense. This very early kind of blues was also a precursor to the first stirrings of jazz.
Here is a scant sampling of a few fav women singers from the past and the present and although they are all from different moments in time, it’s still the blues through and through.
Bessie Smith began her life singing on the streets but became known as one of the finest blues singers of her era. She worked with many jazz greats and was especially well known for her work with Louis Armstrong on St.Louis Blues. Bessie was also associated with extremely naughty (often clever) lyrics. I refer you to Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl. Bessie Smith was also a major influence of Janis Joplin. Check out this commanding, no messin’ singer and hear what I’m talking about!
Bonnie Raitt is well known as an enduring tour de force and preservationist of the blues. What I have always particularly admired about Bonnie is the fact that she really walks the talk. In the beginning, she learned from and became friends with people like Sippie Wallace (one of her heroes) Son House and John Lee Hooker. Authentic much? Bonnie’s version of the blues sometimes strays into many different areas including pop but there is no doubt where her heart lies and I think she has produced some important and wonderful music. Luck of the Draw and Nick of Time are perfect to start with even though they are early records but she’s got 16 more if you like these!
I would admire Alberta Hunter even if she couldn’t sing just for the incredible things she did with her life. (The fact that she had a voice like no other is just icing on the cake!) After a varied and quite successful musical career (she also wrote songs, notably Downheared Blues ) Alberta decided to become a nurse. She was fifty nine at the time! She then worked in a New York hospital for another two decades before deciding to return to singing. Alberta then enjoyed a heady revival of her past success, recording the famous Amtrak Blues in her eighties. And talk about fresh! Although she is advanced in years on this one, I still recommend it as a good sampler. Her voice has matured not weathered and that inherent cheekiness has not been dulled by the years either … Alberta was a funky chick right to the end. I love that!
Debbie Davies is an excellent guitar player as well as vocalist and she earned her chops honestly playing under the watchful eye of the late Albert Collins – yet she doesn’t seem to have quite caught the rave reviews she deserves. Check out her first solo record Picture This. Key Tracks: 24 Hour Fool and the hooky Don’t Take Advantage of Me.Debbie totally rocks out and her voice is husky, sweet and tender all at the same time. Think: Fudge with a chaser of bourbon!