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January 06, 2006

Zenga Longmore on Victoria Spivey

Posted by Zenga Longmore

A while ago, it must have been the mid-1970s, I watched the elderly blues singer Victoria Spivey being interviewed by a dreary BBC journalist. He inquired:

Miss Spivey, you were one of the foremost Classic Blues artistes. Explain the meaning of Classic Blues.
Victoria Spivey replied, with a comic batting of the eyelids:
Oh ye-e-es, I'm classy!
The BBC man sought to reiterate his question:
No, Classic. How would you deconstruct the concept of classic blues?
But Victoria Spivey responded:
Uh huh, I'm ve-e-ry classy.
The BBC man feebly bleated:
No, no. Classic. Classic.
Oh foolish BBC man for attempting to befuddle the magnificent Miss Spivey with a stream of pretentiousness! Like all great artists, she had no time for deconstructions or categorizations. Perhaps that same gormless journalist is at this very moment interviewing Shakespeare in The Other World.

Shakespeare, I expect, is having the time of his heaven-hood. The BBC man may well be asking:

Mr Shakespeare, would you describe Hamlet as a bourgeois, Jacobean social commentator?
With Shakespeare replying:
Aye, my liege, Hamlet be wondrous common.
The BBC man would exasperatedly exclaim:
No, no, commentator.
But to no avail:
Aye, passing common Hamlet be!
(Hearty guffaws from the Bard, as the BBC man stutters and fumbles with his notes.)

Sometimes certain groups of people inexplicably attain artistic heights, like giants awakening from a lengthy sleep. Why did the Irish Ascendancy produce the greatest playwrights from the 18th century onwards? And was there something in the 1890s Parisian l'eau which generated the likes of Toulouse Lautrec?

Most mysteriously of all, how did the horrific conditions of the Deep South of America, with its lynchings, apartheid system and cruel injustices turn out the most ebullient music on the face of the earth? All of a sudden, during the 1920s, a new music was being performed, later to be known as Classic Blues.

Women whose mothers would have been too cowed and crushed to look their white masters in the eye were now parading on stage in the fanciest clothes they could lay their hands on, belting out the blues. And what blues! The Blues Queens were larger than life characters whose loyal subjects, (in the words of Ethel Waters) "blessed the sod on which they trod". Tales of their haughty, outrageous behaviour became mythical such as Bessie Smith's disdainful attitude towards her white benefactors, the Van Vechens. How did these women glean this massive confidence? No one can explain the sudden rise of the Classic Blues, least of all the classic blues singers themselves.

The term Classic Blues is perhaps the most ridiculous description ever attached to any musical style. The name covers everything from the vaudeville razzmatazz of Mamie Smith, to the jazzy roar of Bessie Smith. The only style these singers have in common is a spirited sophistication.

Victoria Spivey would have seen herself as an "all-rounder" who could sing any song in any way her audience required. She was extremely versatile. She wrote her own lyrics, sang them and accompanied herself on the piano. The most thrilling jazz musicians of the day, such as Louis Armstrong, Clarence Williams and Henry Red Allen could be heard accompanying Queen Victoria on her early recordings of the 1920s. Her lyrics were often very funny. Her big hit was How do they do it that way?

Oh when the rooster and the hen
Go to the barn to play
And the hen has chickens
How do they do it that way?
The childlike innocence of the singing - hen becomes "hee-yen" and way "why" - and the chicken-like melodies of Armstrong's horn in the background makes this song one of the most appealing records of the 1920s. One can imagine Victoria assuming the same fluttery eye-lashed look as she sang this song that she adopted for the BBC man fifty years later.

Often Miss Spivey's songs were sad, as her song describing a TB patient demonstrates:

Here I lay a cryin'
Something is on my mind
It's midnight, wonder where the nurse can be?

TB's got me; all my friends have thrown me down
TB's got me and all my friends have thrown me down
But they treated me so nice when I was able to run around

Oh my poor lungs are hurting me so
Mmmm my poor lungs are hurting me so
I don't get no peace or comfort no matter where I go

Lord, my good man don't want me no more
Mmm my good man don't want me no more
Well I wish I was dead and in the land I'm doomed to go

Born in Texas, in 1906 Victoria began singing at a very young age. Like many of her fellow "Classic Blues" artistes she began her career in rough clubs and bars. The entertainer would desperately try to compete with whores plying their trade, drunken gambling fights and constant police raids. Voice amplifiers were scorned. The greatest singers made sure their voices were heard unaided above the din. Although the young Victoria Spivey was not a blues-belter, I imagine she was able to quell the rowdiest crowd with her witty, heart-felt lyrics and her slim, coquettish beauty.

Her only film appearance occurred in King Vidor's Halleluiah! in a somewhat humiliating part. The main point of her role was to be ditched by a preacher in favour of 16 year old Nina May McKinney. King Vidor obtusely wasted the talents of one of his country's most sparkling blues singers.

During the 1950s Victoria abandoned show business altogether and sang only in church. She came into her own once more in the 1960s as the folk music revival gripped America. The old time blues were once again in fashion. Seizing a wonderful opportunity, Victoria started up her own record label promoting her forgotten but illustrious blues-singer friends such as Sippie Wallace, Hannah Sylvester and Lucille Hegman. Less dazzling talents also found their way into Victoria's record company, such as a whiny voiced folk singer called Bob Dylan.

She died in 1976. Her obituaries did not appear in many newspapers. However, Victoria may not have wished for pompous jazz critics to have written high-flown essays about her music. I am sure she would have preferred us to listen to it instead - and every time we do, her ebullient spirit lives on.

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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