Blues means what milk does to a baby. Blues is what the spirit is to the minister. We sing the blues because our hearts have been hurt, our souls have been disturbed.
– Alberta Hunter
Sometime in the early 1980s I went to see Alberta Hunter at The Cookery in New York’s Greenwich Village. My memory of the occasion is dim and I don’t remember who I went with except that I had friends living close by. Could have been one of them. I remember that it was a lovely evening and the club was all lit up. More importantly, I remember that Hunter was an old African-American woman with a full, gritty blues voice and a wicked sense of humor. I knew she’d sung with other blues greats in the 20s and 30s, and that this was a sort of revival for her. 80 something. Still rarin’ to go. She was amazing.
Alberta Hunter was born in Memphis but ran away at age 11 or 12 because she was told she could make $10 a week singing in Chicago. Her first job there was peeling potatoes for $6, plus room and board; she spent her off hours haunting clubs and cabarets, looking for singing jobs and, as you may imagine, lying about her age. In a few years time, she went from performing in some of the city’s worse dives to the prestigious Dreamland, where she earned $35 a week. At about the same time as one of her accompanists was killed by a stray bullet during a performance, she headed for New York.
Over the next decades she toured Europe more than once and appeared in clubs and on stage in musicals in New York and London. In 1928 she played Queenie opposite Paul Robeson in the first London production of Show Boat.
It was always a little easier to work in Europe; she found, like other African-American performers, that she was accorded more respect as an artist there, which also made jobs easier to come by, especially during the Depression. By 1930 she had made more than 80 sides with musicians like Fats Waller, Eubie Blake, Lovie Austin, and Louis Armstrong. Her song, “Downhearted Blues,” brought Bessie Smith to prominence.
Again, I’m going to send you, dear reader, to YouTube which has some great singing by early and late Hunter. The contrast between the two is fascinating. While you’re there, I hope you take special notice of a very strange, yet moving, number from British radio (1934). Called “Black Shadow,” it’s a lament about being Black in a racist time. The theme is very like that of Fats Waller’s “What Did I Do To be So Black and Blue?” (1929), but it’s eerie, and deeply, deeply ironic.
In the 1940s, she took a USO tour to Casablanca and was still entertaining the troops in Korea in the early 1950s when her mother died in 1954, precipitating a decision to retire from music and become a nurse. She was already 59 years old and so, where she had lied to make herself older when she was a kid, this time she lied to make herself younger. She “invented” a high school diploma, took off twelve years, and enrolled in nursing school.
She would have worked happily as a nurse until her death, but in 1977, the hospital, believing her to be 70 (she was well over 80), forced her into retirement. That was when, bored with nothing to do, she let friends talk her into making a comeback. For the next six years, she did just that. Her career was booming at the time of her death in 1984.
So my question is, how did Alberta Hunter happen? What was it in the 1920s and ’30s that made her, Josephine Baker, Bricktop, Mabel Mercer, and at least a dozen—maybe more—women nearly as amazing, rise above the racism of their time and achieve the extraordinary? Certainly, historians must have made some good guesses. If I find the right book, I’ll report back to you. If any of you know, I’d love to hear from you.