By Sarah Bennett
By Adam Lovinus
By Jena Ardell
By Nate Jackson
By Gustavo Arellano
By Nick Keppler
By Nate Jackson
By Alex Distefano
Vaginas and the people who possess them occupy a distinguished place in the blues pantheon. Mamie Smith's 1920 recording of "Crazy Blues" (about her lonely vagina) is generally acknowledged as the first blues record made. It could be argued that Ma Rainey was the first bona-fide blues superstar of either sex, even though the vivacious vixen chose to sing about her "black bottom" in lieu of her velveteen vagina. Bessie Smith was the first to take the blues to mainstream America, although her own reported fondness for vagina was a guarded secret in the less-than-lesbian-friendly '20s and '30s. The entire century has been blessed by such talents: Sippie Wallace, Victoria Spivey, Ethel Waters, Memphis Minnie, Big Maybelle, Big Mama Thornton, Dinah Washington, Etta James, Koko Taylor and the recently deceased Katie Webster. These artists put a decidedly feminine spin on the famously penis-preoccupied perspective of the blues.
Legendary commie feminist Angela Davis did a marvelous job of documenting this phenomenon in her 1998 book Blues Legacies & Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith & Billie Holiday. If you want a thorough history lesson, buy that book. As I do not posses a vagina and am not nearly as smart as Davis, I feel she can offer deeper insight than I. But better still, catch SAFFIRE—THE UPPITY BLUES WOMEN when they play at the Blue Cafe on Saturday night. Perhaps no modern blueswimmens are as tuned-in to their place in blues history as this Virginia-based trio, even though they look more like middle-aged, middle-class mommies than down-home blues strumpets. Witty, quasi-political and bawdy as hell, Saffire serves up original tunes with such titles as "Shake the Dew off the Lily," "Silver Beaver," "Bitch With a Bad Attitude" and "Dump That Chump" that express a post-feminist independence of spirit along with an inconvenient fondness for penises. One minute, they're being castrating bitches; the next, they want to blow you with a mouthful of whipped cream. Ahhhh, the fair sex.
Saffire's principal songwriters—pianist/vocalist Ann Rabson and guitarist/vocalist Gaye Adegbalola—are among the best in da biz (multi-instrumentalist Andra Faye McIntosh is currently the third Uppity Blues Woman). Rabson and Adegbalola avoid all the stale blues clichés still in use today by most genre composers, and their lyrics are always intelligent and insightful. Through half a dozen albums and one really fine solo album by Rabson, their vision has remained sharply focused, and their underrated musicianship has been consistently top-notch. It only figgers. Adegbalola was a biochemical researcher and award-winning teacher and Rabson was a computer analyst before deciding to pitch their day jobs and become full-time musicians on the heels of their self-titled debut album from 1990. A risky career change when you're pushing 50 takes no small amount of, uhhh, balls—and the payoff for these old gals has been a growing reputation as one of the best new blues acts of the decade.
Sticking with the vaginal theme, Rhino Records has released a five-disc boxed set called RESPECT: A CENTURY OF WOMEN IN MUSIC. Luxuriously packaged in crushed velvet and divided among five chronological themes—"Broadway, Blues and the Truth," "Torch, Twang and Swing," "Shoop-Shoop, Motown, Get Down Sister," "Rock to Electric Shock" and "Hip Hop, Pop and Passion"—the set is an impressive, expansive look at women's role in history, musically and otherwise. Dozens and dozens of rare and familiar nuggets are included, from many of the vintage blues women mentioned above to such jazz divas as Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne; through such soul titans as Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross; psychedelic mamas Janis Joplin and Grace Slick; legendary singer/songwriters Carole King and Laura Nyro; and right up through the present day with Tori Amos, Paula Cole and Sarah McLachlan.
Part of the fun with these wide-ranging boxed sets is bitching about who was included vs. who was omitted, so in lieu of the Bangles, Cyndi Lauper or Heart, where the hell are the Boswell Sisters? Anita O'Day? Annie Ross? Marianne Faithful? Annie Lennox? Hole? Saffire—The Uppity Blues Women, for that matter? Hopefully, the answer is that they'll all show up on a second volume of Respect because omissions aside, this is one vaginariffic set that remains surprisingly listenable as it careens like a drunken sailor all over the stylistic highway. In the end, Respect is as educational as it is fun to hear.
Meanwhile, BIG BAD VOODOO DADDY, who appear Wednesday at the Sun Theater, don't actually have vaginas, but they play like real pussies. At press time, I hadn't heard the neo-swing boys' latest album, which is slated for release Tuesday, but it's highly doubtful that it would contain anything to change my assessment in any case. Among the most offensive of the cartoon-swing brigade, these odious poseurs wear really cute little hats and suits but unfortunately also have the chops of your average high school marching band. Of course, the Doodoo Patty have sold platinum by parlaying trendy retro-fashion, obvious and incompetently performed Cab Calloway covers (the all-time weakest, whitest version of "Minnie the Moocher" ever recorded), and plagiaristic knock-offs ("Go Daddy-O" equals Louis Jordan's "Caledonia") into a phony brand of "jazz" so transparent in its pretensions they're something akin to the Sigue Sigue Sputnik of the '90s. Fortunately, the moronic fake-swing revival thing that was such Big News a year or so ago finally appears to be wearing out its welcome, so with any luck, these guys and their ilk will go away soon and I won't feel compelled to rail against them any more.