Prohibition Blues w/Taylor O'Donnell
Next up, Soggy Po Boys Featuring: brings you a night of Prohibition Blues with Ms. Taylor O'Donnell. The event will take place at Sonny's in Dover on Tuesday 7/28 at 9pm. If you are not familiar with Taylor and her amazing voice, you've been sleeping on the Seacoast music scene for the past 3 years. If you haven't caught a night of Taylor singing her own music, you may recognize her from performing with Mother Superior and the Sliding Royals, or with the Chris Klaxton Group.
As we planned the music for our performance, Taylor had some very interesting stuff to say about the music and the artists themselves. Heres an interview for you all to enjoy!
One of the artists we found a collection of tunes from to perform together is Bessie Smith. What drew you to her music? At what point in your musical journey did you discover her? What kind of affect did it have on you?
The enormity and demanding weight of her voice is what initially drew me to her music. The first recording I ever heard of Bessie Smith was "St. Louis Blues" with Louis Armstrong on cornet, when I was about 18. It wasn't until I listened to it several times over did I get a picture for the recording situation - the power of her voice almost matches the power of Louis' horn. I kept imagining one room mic with the two of them feeding off of each other. Every note that came out of her felt honest, strong. That kind of respect for every note and every word came from her strong, unapologetic personality. I've greatly admired her stage presence, and relentless delivery.
How did her voice/technique/style influence the tradition of blues and jazz singers that followed? She was known as one of the most daring and powerful blues singers of her time. When she was a young girl, she started singing on the streets for money with her little brother on guitar. Having to capture passersby attention in that way, she developed a huge chest voice sound. Later on, part of what put her on the map was that her voice was powerful enough to be recorded well - her first recordings were done acoustically. These recordings were fairly accessible for the time period, and she went on to become the highest paid black singer of the day. "T'ain't Nobody's Business What I Do" was one of Billie Holidays' favorite recordings, and one of the tunes that first made her want to be a singer. Bessie's sound was very much the initial, imitable sound - the prototype.
Ma Rainey seems to be the godmother of blues singers. Did she have a personal relationship with Bessie?
When Bessie was 18, she started singing with a minstrel and voice troupe that toured in the south as a tent show called the Rabbits' Foot Minstrels. She was actually hired as a dancer initially, but had met Ma Rainey as one of the singers in the troupe a few years earlier. Ma Rainey really took Bessie under her wing from a young age. Ma Rainey was mostly known for her often crude and commanding stage presence, and was one of the first singers to popularize the singing style - she gave Bessie a lot of her knack for show business, and also heavily influenced her vocal and performance style. The subject matter of her songs were really fresh at the time, and dealt with the black experience in America as no other songs had previously done. She taught Bessie how to be direct, raw.
As you could imagine it probably wasn't easy being a black female entertainer in the early 1900s. Bessie seems to have a pretty strong sense of self assurance when you hear her sing. In a way she seems to be a gal not to mess with. I hear there are some stories of her off stage that reveal a bit about her character, do you have any to share?
She was definitely known as a volatile woman. I think you had to be in that time, to get yourself to be heard, but she was also pretty scary as a person. There's a story I heard in an interview with one of her chorus girl companions, about her marriage to Jack Gee. It was a rocky relationship, and they both were constantly cheating on each other - often with other women... for both of them. After Bessie had been recording in New York in 1926, she came back to a show she was doing in Alabama called Harlem Frolics. When she got back, one of the chorus girls told her that Jack had messed around on her with another chorus girl while she was gone. Without taking any time to check out the story, Bessie jumped the girl and beat her up. Then, went looking for Jack. She couldn't find him, but she did find his shotgun. When she finally found him, and the sobbing girl who came to warn him, there was no talking any sense into her. This all occurred near the railroad car the company was touring on, with the full company there to watch the show. Screaming and hollering at him, she chased after him, and emptied the gun near his feet while he ran away from the rail station. A couple of hours later, the company left without him. [Bessie] Definitely wasn't a gal to mess with.
You specifically wanted to do a song called Lotus Blossom by Julia Lee. What about that song struck you in such a way that it was a must for this show?
I was really struck by the sassiness of this particular tune, and the chord progression that goes from minor to major at the cadences. She definitely found success in delivering some great double entendre tunes, such as "I Didn't Like It the First Time" (The Spinach Song)...a song definitely not referring to spinach. I had never heard of her before I stumbled upon a recording of this tune about a month ago - I'm always struck by the lyric content of tunes from this era that really push the envelope. Considering she launched her career during the time of Prohibition, the euphemisms are hilarious and pretty brave.