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September 30, 2005

Zenga Longmore on Elizabeth Rose's new album, Sleep Naked

Posted by Zenga Longmore

Sleep Naked - Elizabeth Rose

Until I heard Elizabeth Rose's new album, Sleep Naked, I was convinced the great tradition of blues-women accompanying themselves on the guitar had vanished.

During the 1930s, the Deep South was simply awash with females strumming ebulliently on banjos and twelve string guitars, moaning the blues. Very often they sang their own lyrics, the themes of which ranged from the misery of a life of prostitution to the joys of romantic love. Memphis Minnie (1897-1973), the superlative female blues guitarist, sang in a raw, "down-home" style. She was married to Joe McCoy, the leader of the Harlem Hamfats. McCoy had been a deeply religious preacher before experiencing a St Paul Revelation in reverse.

Out of the blue McCoy was struck by the realization that the Devil's Music (or jazz, it had begun to be known) led to the path of Glory. Instantly he renounced godliness but luckily his sight remained intact. In his song Hallelujah Joe he describes his personal road to Damascus - or New Orleans:

Hallelujah Joe!
Ain't preachin' no more
He's swingin' now, so he ain't gonna preach no more
He made a trip down to New Orleans,
And he made that song 'Weed Smoker's Dream'
Weed Smoker's Dream, a song extolling the virtues of Madame Marijuana, was Joe's big hit.

His wife Minnie had no reason to celebrate conversions, having been born into a blues family. Memphis Minnie was a tough woman whose talent ensured her star continued to shine throughout the depression years. Strikingly attractive and always glamorously attired, she occasionally startled her audience by laying down her guitar in order to pull a gun on an unruly fan. Miss Minnie was heavily influenced by the classic blues shouters of her day, such as Victoria Spivey and Ma Rainey. In a haunting tribute to Ma Rainey, Minnie describes her as "the best blues singer I ever heard". Ma Rainey was known as the Queen of the Blues in the early 1920s before being usurped by the power-packed Bessie Smith. Minnie's song Ma Rainey finishes with these words:

Ma Rainey's gone, but Minnie will carry on.
Now that Memphis Minnie's gone, I am unbelievably grateful to have discovered that the singer and songwriter Elizabeth Rose is here to carry on the great line of blues guitar women.

Ms Rose's music defies categorization. Just as one cannot state, in all honesty, that Sarah Vaughan was purely a jazz singer, so Elizabeth Rose is not exactly a blues singer, not quite a jazz artiste and not really a balladeer. She once told me:

No one can pin down my musical style. I'm bluesy, rocky and jazzy.
Recently, I was fortunate enough to receive a copy of Elizabeth Rose's CD which sports the somewhat concupiscent title, Sleep Naked. Ms Rose arranged, wrote and performed all the numbers in this album. One hearing of her songs is enough to convince the listener that Elizabeth is not only a poet but also a philosopher whose ideas bristle with tough, world-changing suggestions. Take a look at her lyrics for Oil, a song lamenting America's Middle Eastern policies:
Inbred greed head, overfed, under read,
Hide behind your figurehead
Go back home - stay in bed - OIL
What you're doing
It's sticky, it's greasy, it makes me feel queasy,
Please release me and give us back the peace from OIL

One hundred million two, who needs a caribou?
Three hundred million four
Go launder it offshore, four hundred million five,
Let's keep this war alive, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10,
Not enough? Just say when

To understand the nature of Elizabeth's passionate spirit, one must wallow in the drama of her singing and playing. I first heard her in New York in 1976. I had never come across a singer equipped with such an extraordinary vocal range. Her high notes soar into the stratosphere, then dive into the ether until they are only discernible to the genus chiroptera. Her rakish humour and New York banter delight her listeners. "She's jaw droppingly brilliant", a man next to me muttered (with difficulty due to his dropped jaw). Her humour and presentation recall Ella Fitzgerald at her most jaunty, although physically, Elizabeth and Ella could not be more different. Elizabeth is tiny and slim with an elfin face surrounded by a mass of ringlets. Her puckish black eyes radiate mischief and intelligence.

Sleep Naked's songs scan a vast range of subjects and emotions. Enlightenment delves into the soul of a woman who is heartily sick of her partner's "relentless incantations, mantras, revelations",
Elizabeth pleads in an angelic soprano:
Oh spare me your enlightenment.
and on your way out, throw me a beer.
Leave Me Alone is a very comic song about Elizabeth's ageing mother's grouchy plea for independence:
Leave me alone I wanna do it myself - I got 91 years on you
Leave me alone I don't want your help
Or your solicitudinous - phooey
I know you're whispering things behind my back
I don't care a whit - wouldn't waste a why
Leave me alone I wanna do it myself
You just stand back and watch me - that's sure to kill you
Way before I die.
The lyrics on the album include warnings to back seat drivers, anger at being whistled at and of course love - lost love, discovered love and love unknown. It All Comes Back To Love is one of the most delectable songs on the album. I was especially impressed by Elizabeth's husband, Don Castellow, whose masterful baritone saxophone features on some of the numbers. One wanders what Memphis Minnie would have made of Sleep Naked. Like me, I expect she would have wept, laughed, and perhaps muttered in her own inimitable way, "Ooo whee! Good to the last drop".

Zenga Longmore writes for The Spectator, The Oldie, and The Daily Telegraph. She is an actress and blues singer and the author of Tap-taps To Trinidad. To read her previous pieces on jazz for the Social Affairs Unit, see Jazz.

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In the Story of Joe McCoy, we see the Devil at play, convincing a person that because a particular kind of music is associated with the Underclass, it must come from the Underworld. For a modern parallel, see how Peter Kreeft, a conservative Catholic theologian, has Snakebite, his equivalent of C.S.Lewis’s Screwtape, write:

Because of a few Satan-pushers, a few more drug-pushers, and a lot more sex-pushers among rock groups, millions of the Enemy’s most serious followers fear or sneer at the whole genre of rock music. In itself this is not important, except that it deprives them of much natural fun and outlets for adolescent nervous energy, which goes underground, where we can twist it.

For myself, respectability and sanctity do not go together. As I listen to Classic FM (until the ads start to drive me mad) I enjoy hearing pieces from Britten’s Soirée Musicale, or from Peter Grimes, but his religious compositions would drive me out of any church, sounding to me as if the Heavenly Spheres have come off their axes, or as if the music was written for vicars who no longer believe in God.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at October 1, 2005 01:59 PM
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