Video: Remembering the Blues Queens

Video: Remembering the Blues Queens
March 30, 2011
Tony Tedeschi

The great blues queens of the 1920s and ‘30s and their indelible influence may have been largely forgotten, not only on the blues of today, but jazz and rock ‘n roll may also have faded into the dusty corners of music history, but not if Gail Storm can help it.

A present-day blues pianist and vocalist, Storm brought her wonderfully enlightening show to the Glen Cove Library this past Sunday, playing taped excerpts from some of the most influential of the blues queens. She then demonstrated how their music wears well in its original forms, but also updates to sound both modern and therefore still relevant.

“The blues are all about expression,” she told a capacity audience at the Library’s downstairs listening room. “These women used a lot of metaphor and fantasy, weaving stories of lost love, cheating lovers and those tales of woe that make up the foundation of the blues.”

Storm allows that it is difficult to make definitive statements about a great deal of early blues history, but there is at least some consensus that the first blues recording was Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues.” Historically, perhaps the title of “Mother of the Blues” belongs to Ma Rainey.

“Not only was Ma Rainey influential in her own right,” Storm said, “but she is credited with having a great deal of influence on younger singers. She also did tunes that were unusual for a female singer, like ‘C.C. Rider.’” That hard-edged song performed during an era when white female performers were all sweetness and light.

Storm explained that while songs like “C.C. Rider,” with its basic chord structure, helped define a great deal of the blues, successive pieces began to blur the lines with jazz and then form some of the very basic foundations for rock ‘n roll.

She demonstrated by playing what she called the simple 1-4-5 chord structure of “C.C. Rider,” then showed how she could both modernize it and make it her own simply by changing the emphasis in the bass line.

Bessie Smith was among the unique individuals who became famous blues queens – a “wild woman,” according to accounts – one of which (possibly apocryphal) had her shooting her husband for his infidelities. But by the 1930s, wild woman or not, Smith was earning as much as $1,500 per week, literally a queen’s ransom, in those days.

Demonstrating the tragic-comic nature of some of the blues songs, Storm first played a recording of Bessie Smith’s “Send Me to The Electric Chair,” a song about a woman who confesses to cutting the throat of her unfaithful lover. She played a tape of Dinah Washington doing her version decades later, then Storm updated it with her rendition.

Among the other legends was Alberta Hunter, whose early career was followed by a renaissance in the 1970s.

“Over the years, there was a lot of sharing in the blues,” Storm said, continuing that tradition by sharing her vast knowledge of the subject with the Library audience.

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