By Lee Hildebrand
“Everybody says the blues is a man and his guitar,” saxophonist, clarinetist, and vocalist Kristen Strom said sarcastically during Blues Is a Woman, the title song of singer-songwriter’s Pamela Rose’s magnificent multimedia show that took place on March 30 at Freight & Salvage.
Strom’s tongue-in-cheek remark followed a series of different definitions of the musical genre by the other cast members: Rose, pianist Tammy Hall, guitarist Pat Wilder, bassist Ruth Davies and drummer Daria Johnson, all of whom also sang. Jayne Wenger is the show’s creative director.
“The blues is when my car won’t start,” one said. “The blues is my slave-driving boss,” stated another. “The blues is about that man of mine,” one woman added, prompting another to counter, “that woman of mine.”
There is, however, some truth in Strom’s statement. Men, particularly those who play guitar, have dominated the blues world at least since the 1930s. But during the previous decade, when blues songs performed by African Americans were first captured on wax, women ruled on records and on the black vaudeville circuit run by the white-owned Theater Operators Booking Association (TOBA). Rose pointed out during the two-hour show that it was also called “Tough on Black Asses” by performers of the period.
The women who performed what is now known as “classic blues” during the ‘20s were royalty in the African-American community. Bessie Smith was “Empress of the Blues.” Mamie Smith and Clara Smith (neither related to Bessie) were “Queen of the Blues” and “Queen of the Moaners,” respectively.
Blues Is a Woman: From Ma Rainey to Bonnie Raitt (the show’s full title) is something of an outgrowth of Rose’s earlier multimedia presentation, Wild Women of Song, which focused on female composers of jazz, pop and blues songs. The two numbers that the Los Angeles-born, San Francisco-based vocalist composed for the current production – “Blues Is a Woman” and “Blues Is a Mighty River” – also demonstrate that Rose herself is a first-rate tunesmith.
The Bay Area has been home to other woman-led blues revues in the past, from Maxine Howard’s Women in the Blues in the ‘80s to the Blues Broads and Rhonda Benin’s annual Just Like a Woman at Freight & Salvage in recent times. Blues Is a Woman is much more than a musical revue, however. Rose calls her show, which incorporates music, scripted dialogue, photographs and film projected onto a screen above the stage, a “theatrical concert.”
The use of vocal harmony on almost every one of the show’s 24 tunes also sets it apart from previous projects. Old songs such as Sippie Wallace’s “Up the Country Blues,” Peggy Lee’s “You Was Right, Baby” and Memphis Minnie’s “Looking the World Over” took on new life through the addition of harmonies that were at times reminiscent of Sweet Honey in the Rock. Johnson’s reading of Clara Smith’s “Nobody Knows the Way I Feel This Morning” over Hall’s churchy piano chords and the ensemble’s vocal blend was deeply soulful. The urgency of her improvised vamp, which jumped an octave on the song’s coda, elicited spontaneous applause from the near-capacity audience. Additional freshness came courtesy of frequent a cappella interludes, as well as from occasional rumba-boogie and funk grooves.
All the women, save for Davies, took turns trading solo, duo and trio leads. Rose was at the helm much of the time, applying her powerful alto tones and refined phrasing to such numbers as Ma Rainey’s “Don’t Fish in My Sea,” Alberta Hunter’s “Remember My Name” and Ruth Brown’s “Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean.” She sometimes mimicked the phasing of others, including Sophie Tucker’s unique Yiddish take on Alberta Hunter’s blues style during the Sheldon Brooks song “Some of These Days” and her syllable repetitions on Janis Joplin’s version of Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain.” The latter song featured a blistering feedback-fueled guitar solo by Wilder. Hall, the group’s musical director, brought the house down with her two-fisted blues and boogie-woogie piano solos throughout the evening and also revealed herself to be a quite fine singer, something she too-rarely does in public.
Occasional dashes of humor laced the proceedings with such double-entendre numbers as “Don’t Fish in My Sea,” Wilder and Strom’s reading of Ida Cox’s “One Hour Mama” and Wilder’s treatment of Dinah Washington’s “Big Long Sliding Thing” on which she left out the line about a trombone being the alleged subject. And Rose recalled Sippie Wallace having once said, “My teeth are so far apart, I had to sip everything.”
The central subject matter of the show is quite serious, however. Besides countering the widespread misconception that the blues is essentially the province of men, the work serves as a long overdue lesson that traces the music’s history in chronological order, from its roots in West Africa and its incubation in slavery to the time of terror that followed the end of Reconstruction through the ongoing exploitation of African-American performers by record companies and promoters. Bringing the story more up-to-date was a black-and-white video of Nina Simone singing and playing her angry, anti-racist “Backlash Blues” after which the ensemble broke into Aretha Franklin’s version of Otis Redding’s “Respect” on which the word “freedom” was given extra emphasis.
Although blues is an art form that was devised, developed and long dominated by African Americans, Rose, who is Caucasian, took the seldom-explored step of tracing the roles played by white women in the music. Some may find it politically incorrect, but Tucker, Lee, Joplin and Raitt are all given props.
With Blues Is a Woman, Pamela Rose has created a musically compelling, wonderfully entertaining, educationally informative and at times daring work that imaginatively crosses the lines between concert and theater.
The show is slated to run four nights a week throughout August at the Custom Made Theatre in San Francisco.
Lee Hildebrand has been writing about music in the Bay Area and beyond since 1968 and is the author of “Hammertime” (Avon Books, 1992) and “Stars of Soul and Rhythm & Blues” (Billboard Books, 1994). His feature stories and reviews have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Living Blues, the East Bay Express, San Diego Reader, Oakland Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Billboard, Rolling Stone and many other publications.