Blues is What the Spirit is to the Minister

December 7, 2012

In 1980, a few days after Thanksgiving, I stood in a line at a table in a Greenwich Village club to see if a singer would autograph my napkin. It was an incredibly long wait. Many people were wanting to talk to her, share their accolades. As I finally got closer, a family of fans right in front of me seemed to want to ask the singer endless questions. They kept chatting at length about things that fans often do, snippets of their lives, their favorite songs. I was the last in line and I eventually lost my nerve. I knew she had another set and needed to begin soon. I decided to return to my seat. As I started walking I heard someone say, “Hey baby, come here!” She was waving me over with her long beautiful fingers. I shyly gave her my napkin. She took it and signed it. I don’t remember what she said to me. She seemed regal somehow and it was as though I was standing at the foot of God—as I believe she probably truly is—God as a wise and kind blues singer. I uttered the only words that came to me. “Thank you and bless you.” And I walked back to my table and held the napkin like it was a talisman, a kind of paper oracle. The singer was Alberta Hunter. I was 21 years old. She was 85.

And again, I watched her from only a few feet away as she sang in The Cookery like she was sweeping notes from bedrock up into the stars. She was preaching, she was teaching, she was telling stories. There was an important weight in her words, sly humor and truth, and a remarkable beauty in a woman who called herself ugly. When she sang tunes like Without A Song you believed the world was created so she could sing it. And when she sang My Castle’s Rockin ‘, Darktown Strutters’ Ball and her own song Downhearted Blues you were witness to an artist and a musical timeline.

Today I am missing Alberta. I am thinking of her quite astonishing life story, the early days in Chicago, how she walked away in her fifties to become a nurse. How she came back to sing again in her seventies. And I am missing all the Albertas out there that maybe could be singing for us now. As I was growing up in this country I was able to see a whole range of artists out there—singing and playing in concert. In my twenties I saw Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Count Basie, Betty Carter, Sonny Rollins, Sheila Jordan, Carmen McCrae, Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson, Shirley Horn,… to name a few. These were not necessarily all older adult artists, but certainly a bit more mature than New Kids On the Block.

I grew up watching Ethel Merman sing as only Ethel could on just about every variety show that was on television when I was a kid. Variety shows showcased just as advertised—a plethora of weird and wonderful in terms of entertainment. But variety shows also delivered the goods when it came to a range of ages and styles. I could see Julie Andrews and Little Stevie Wonder, but I could also see Louis Armstrong. I could see Johnny Cash and I could see Bob Dylan singing with Johnny. You might see Joan Sutherland, Mahalia Jackson, Peggy Lee and as I remember years later on a revamped Smothers Brothers Show, I saw k.d.lang.

Who does my daughter see these days? There is a host of singing contests. One could argue there is a populist approach in how anyone from any town can win the end prize. What my daughter is learning is more to do with trends and power voting, not so much about talent. And youth rules. Our musical connections across the generations has come unbraided. There is Tony Bennett—god love him—who continues to sing—and also does it with the crossover likes of Lady Gaga and Queen Latifah. But otherwise where are the older artists, the singers and musicians for us to listen to and learn from? They occasionally appear on late night shows. They show up at times in casinos. They are booked into late night club venues. They are not delivered up to very young listeners. My ten-year old daughter has sat at concerts listening to Mavis Staples, John Prine, Marcia Ball, Bonnie Raitt, Levon Helm, because well, yes, I dragged her. But she does sing their songs. Maybe I’m wrong, but I do think she needs to see and hear those who came before her– who play music. They are artisans that teach and let spill secrets. She knows only too well due to her mother’s occupational circumstance the sounds of folk, world, and bluegrass musicians. These are all arenas where age only makes you better and tradition-bearing rings long and true.

The phenomenon of Cesaria Evora and Henri Salvador as well as other mature artists and their successes, tell me other parts of the world are interested and always learning from incredible older performers in a popular market. And in the classical music world you are usually not voted off the island if you are rich in years and experience. Though let us pause and reflect on the state of orchestras in this country and the how and why of current strikes. Not so much an issue of age than maybe a perception of need and value. Don’t we need world-class orchestras? Are public-event holding lobbies what drives ticket sales, and the musical performances a more secondary concern? But that is a whole nother topic.

I am not a young musician. But I am always learning. So I am looking at the musical landscape, at those older and younger. And I am thrilled to hear Esperanza Spalding. I feel there is hope in artists like this—young women who have killer instrumental chops, beautiful smart singers and composers. Bring them on. And bring on the Albertas too. Let all of us hear and see them, on beyond our small glimpses upon their past through independent radio or public television documentaries.

I learned that night from Alberta. I learned older voices can sing way more color and passion into the bones of a song that they leave teeth marks on your soul. They know about loneliness, love maps, lost treasure, the simple things, the hard facts and the blessed.

Like Alberta sings–A man is born but he’s no good no how– without a song.

So let it be all of us, young and old, singing. Let it be jazz, let it be folk or Bach,–but let it always be the blues.

“Blues is what the spirit is to the minister”  –Alberta Hunter