At tonight’s Grammy Awards, Alabama Shakes will be in the running for four nominations resulting from their sophomore album, Sound and Color. If you had told me five years ago that a black woman would be holding an Album of the Year nomination in 2016, I would have had no problem believing it. It just never would have occurred to me that she would be making rock.
There is something so simple and satisfying about American blues and rock music. Once we dig below the vapid dad nostalgia that characterizes the most played-out of it, the simple power chords and taciturn blocks of rhythm make for a familiar space to nod one’s head. It is the music that is free from the need to make itself new. Great music, quite often, is not a new idea but an old idea that simply demands to be heard again and again.
Blues and rock are also fundamentally American music, so it’s a shame that so many Americans are made to feel like they have to deny a part of who they are in order to enjoy it. Growing up, I had friends of all races tell me that black people shouldn’t, or don’t, listen to rock. Black people invented rock, yet I knew better than to say that. Because even by the time I was 15, I knew it to be a typical truth of race in America that building something from the ground up with your hands, your blood, sweat, and/or tears, doesn’t guarantee that you own it. In fact, it more likely guarantees that you don’t.
The first time I saw Jimi Hendrix on a magazine cover, I was 14 years old. I had never seen anyone who looked the way I felt. Like a passionate freak, part alien, part monster, part lover, part messiah. But black. I didn’t know such a thing was possible, much less in the public eye. I promptly shoplifted the issue from a 7-Eleven in Van Nuys and read for three days about how many white people not only accepted this mercurial weirdness but praised Hendrix for it. It was the opposite of what I learned growing up, which always came down to: If you want white people to treat you decently, don’t challenge them. Don’t make them uncomfortable, don’t have too many feelings, don’t be too weird. If you want to survive, you have to keep white people feeling safe.
It is an immensely frustrating proposition: that your ability to successfully navigate oppression depends entirely on your ability to meet the completely arbitrary definition the oppressor sets for your worth. It is, in fact, a no-win proposition, which is the reason why the most revolutionary cultural acts black people have undertaken in 2016 have involved the unapologetic expression of oneself and one’s blackness. From Beyoncé’s white-terror-inducing announcement that she has hot sauce in her bag to Kanye’s Dalí-esque live gospel performance on SNL, it’s become clear that the only way to survive the obsessive and overbearing demand of white oppression is to stop worrying about it altogether. The only way to win is not to play. This kind of spiritual freedom is by no means a new idea, but it is a state of being that requires daily maintenance. And black folks today are collectively engaged, perhaps more than at any time since the early 1970s, in this daily maintenance.
Alabama Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard represents this spiritual freedom in that she does what’s true and what has been considered to be, up until fairly recently, unusual. She is a black woman playing blues rock. And she does so with the kind of force and fearlessness of vulnerability that makes people uncomfortable. But when I showed videos of her to my 10-year-old daughter, who shares Howard’s skin color and hair texture, and whose pantheon of black female artists consists only of Beyoncé and Rihanna, she was mesmerized; trying to understand, it seemed, the decidedly real image of a big-bodied woman of color singing, trembling, quaking, and shivering her truth. This is not the perfect pop star from central casting surrounded by a dozen meticulously urban backup dancers.
As a parent, all you want for your kids is that they feel free to be themselves and be loved. But the problem, especially raising a girl and most especially raising a girl of color, is that you can say you love and accept them until you are unable to speak anymore, but this will eventually be drowned out by a world that tells them in thundering and certain terms: “There are a lot of parts of you -- honest, beautiful, and vulnerable parts -- that we don’t have any place for.” The limits placed on a person’s humanity are already great by the time that person is a 10-year-old girl.
Brittany Howard playing guitar, making those ugly, honest faces, and belting out such unapologetic power does the kind of parenting for my daughter that I can’t do alone. I can tell my daughter it’s OK to be something that no one else has given her permission to be. But Brittany Howard can show her.
No matter what anyone says, blues and rock are our music as much as they are anyone else’s, and Brittany Howard is only the latest in a long line of black women who have owned them. She is not out there alone.
And because seven is the lucky number of the blues, here are seven other sisters who have come along before, or in some cases alongside, her.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Sometime in the past few years, Sister Tharpe has become everyone’s favorite “Did you know black women played the blues guitar?” go-to. We’ve heard how she influenced Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry and is herself considered the true godmother of rock and roll. But none of that prepares you for her guitar virtuosity, nor the sharp power of her live performances. She shreds both musically and spiritually and is possessed of the kind of focus that makes you feel like you’re always watching her in an extreme close-up. You get the feeling that no part of her soul or spirit is anywhere but on the stage, and that this allows her to bring the wide array of her energy into acute alignment. It is as frequent as it is cheap to explain away the power expressed by some women of African descent as though it were an otherworldly or somehow “spiritual” phenomenon. In the case of Rosetta Tharpe, the effect on the audience may be spiritual, but the ingredients are work, clarity of purpose, and a complete willingness to give of herself. Even though she is relatively widely known, her legacy is still tragically underrated. She is one of the original creators of rock and roll, one of the very first to build the bridge between the passion of gospel and the carnal lust of rock, and yet the closest she’s come to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is when Johnny Cash shouted her out as a primary influence while he was enjoying his own induction.
Memphis Minnie ran away from home to play music on Beale Street when she was 13. Her sidewalk guitar work led to a stint with the Ringling Bros. circus. After that, she returned to Memphis to continue playing, rounding out her meager musical earnings with prostitution. And this is what such a woman sounds like when playing maybe the first rock-and-roll song ever recorded. "Bad Luck Woman," from 1936, pinned its melody to a steady backbeat thump that was generally unheard of at the time. Ike Turner wouldn’t record "Rocket 88" (widely claimed to be the first rock song) for another 15 years. And Minnie’s guitar playing is so measured and confident, her voice so strident and lonesome, that it stands as one of the earliest examples of an artist bridging the gap between performance and confession.
Rosa Lee Hill
Little of Ms. Hill’s biography is known, but recordings of her survive as a part of Alan Lomax’s extensive cataloguing of the roots of American music. This version of "Rolled and Tumbled" is stark and dark, mournful and sharp, with a melody that creeps and winds its way up your spine. The warble in her voice touches your own most vulnerable places. When she sings of rolling and tumbling and crying the whole night long, of waking up in the morning and not knowing right from wrong, she is talking about being a black woman, facing life in the South in the early part of the 20th century. She is talking about how it takes extraordinary effort to simply keep your head above spiritual waters. The void, the abject, is all around you. Sometimes it is death, sometimes the devil, but it is always near. To pick up one's guitar and sing a song is to fashion a rope from strings of melody that can, for a time anyway, lift you just inches above the abyss.
Jessie Mae Hemphill
Jessie Mae Hemphill started off learning fife and drum blues with her grandfather Sid Hemphill. But her own recording career wouldn’t begin until she was in her fifties, with her first full-length album, the unapologetically named She-Wolf, coming in 1982. A Mississippi blues woman in the post-disco era, she was a glorious sight on tour. Decked in a leopard romper, dangling jewelry, and a cowboy hat adorned with feathers, she calls to mind the broken princess power of Courtney Love at her most exalted. Her straight-ahead Delta-blues recordings, like the bone-deep breakup anthem “Go Back to Your Used to Be,” are as soul-shaking as anything recorded by John Lee Hooker, but the unfashioned glamour of a tambourine wrapped around a silver platform sandal makes the live recording of “Streamline Train” one of my favorite videos of any blues woman doing anything, anywhere.
Etta Baker spent 90 years playing the North Carolina Piedmont blues style on both six-string and 12-string guitars, earning along the way the right to instruct Bob Dylan, Taj Mahal, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and a host of others in the smooth and relaxed open-string style she exhibits on “One Dime Blues,” her most famous recording. Her fingerpicking is lovely and loving, skilled and heavenly -- a style markedly different from the low-down, mud-bucket blues that was popping off a few states over. However, when she does slow down the tempo, as she does on this recording of the Ray Charles classic “On the Other Hand Baby,” the expression of her hardship is overwhelming in its purity. It has long been a blues trope that men complain about their women -- they are low-down and no good, they don’t appreciate the work and toil of earning a dollar. But when a woman sings those same lyrics, it is subversive and infinitely more compelling. Ray Charles sings of being mistreated with a wry smile and a “that's how it is sometimes” head shake. But in Etta Baker’s quiet, stately, and matter-of-fact delivery, there is no amusement to be found.
The contemporary blues woman hails from Tennessee, the offspring of a local music promoter who worked for everyone from gospel troupes to K-Ci & JoJo. The plethora of June’s influences is undeniable on her 2013 major-label debut Pushing Against a Stone (co-produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach). The album is a moody, magical passage through a vast landscape of American music, but no track is more coersive than the banjo uke ballad “Somebody to Love.” In the hands of another artist, it could come across as maudlin or unnecessarily twee, but June summarily checks any cuteness of the tiny banjo with a fearless channeling of timeless longing. The presence of Memphis soul legend Booker T on the studio version grounds the recording in a territory much closer to Otis Redding than Cat Power. Valerie June’s performance gives you chills and makes you wonder how such power can remain focused in one person.
Elizabeth Cotten was just 12 years old in 1907 when she wrote her most famous song, “Freight Train.” A year later, she had largely turned her back on music to work as a maid alongside her mother in North Carolina. She married at 17, had a daughter, and moved around the eastern states, finally settling in Washington, D.C. She played music for church and family but no one else, until -- in one of those coincidences that make you consider believing in a benevolent god -- she was hired as a maid by folk music archivist Pete Seeger’s brother Mike, himself an avid collector of Americana. The story goes that Cotten remembered some songs from her childhood and played them for the family. This prompted Seeger to make the bedroom reel-to-reel recordings that would later become the album Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar, released in 1958. Soon Cotten was the darling of the emerging Greenwich Village folk scene, her songs covered by Joan Baez; Peter, Paul and Mary; Jerry Garcia; Bob Dylan; and, more recently, Devendra Banhart. She found herself enjoying a prolific career playing at festivals and colleges throughout the 1960s. And in 1967, Cotten recorded one of the most compelling pop melodies ever written. The titular track of the album Shake Shugaree is a potent combination of tribulation and delicacy, an effect magnified by the fact that Cotten chose to have her own 12-year-old granddaughter sing lead vocals. It would be arrogant to try to describe it further.