Never underestimate the power of lewd in America…
by Art Chantry (email@example.com)
THE blues were not popularized by old black men riding the rails in the deep south. i know that’s heresy to say out loud, but those great great bluesmen of the past were giants of music in our imagination, but were never very popular. they probably sold more records THIS year (so far) than most of them sold in their entire lifetimes. the interesting reality, the actual HISTORY of the blues is that WOMENFOLK were the ones to sell it in the beginning. blues women blazed that trail. ma rainey, bessie smith, etc. were the people who sold all the records back then and put the blues (and subsequently jazz) onto the charts and into the national cultural imagination. and you know why? because they sang DIRTY songs!!! porn!
The early female blues singers sang about sex. they sang about love and drink and gay people and drugs and raunch. they did it openly and loudly and everybody LOVED it. most white people culture was so uptight and victorian, that a sharp poke in the ear with a throaty song about ‘not getting any’ was a tittillating spectacle in those times. they launched the first real underground music revolution – and they did it at the turn of the century with 78 rpm recordings on wind-up ‘victorola’ players. and they sold more sheet music than disks. sheet music was actually the ‘music charts’ sales figures that were important back then. most people bought the sheet music to play at home on their own instruments because nobody could afford new modern tech like shellac records and furniture size record players. try to imagine an early middle class family sitting around the living room together in the evening, entertaining themselves playing blues numbers.
You can never underestimate the power of ‘lewd’ in america. every time a new technology is introduced, almost it’s immediate first use is to make porn. that’s always what launches the new support culture that surrounds any new technology. it’s what creates the wealth that feeds the development of that technology. just think about it a little – what’s always the first that appears when a new communication invention that hits the market? you betcha!
I remember back when photocopiers first showed up in school libraries (coin op). the every first thing my friends did was drop their pants and sit on the copier and take a picture of their loins. they often broke the glass and cut their butts, too. i even remember a show in one of my old college art galleries i attended. they were showing a collection of archival faculty pieces from their department collection – work donated or purchased they kept because it represented the work of their old instructors and teachers. there on the wall among restrained and slightly talented paintings and sculptures of this show was one of those ‘butt xerox’ images, signed and dated like it was an authentic art print from back in the mid 1960′s. so classic and so stupid, eh? “fine art” my ass!
new tech = new porn and that results in new industry and culture, too. look at how much internet technology was pioneered in the porn industry. it’s astronomical (but seldom spoken of.) it’s embarrassing to admit we’re sexual beings, ya know? but, it’s just the facts.
Ruth wallis was a good jazz and cabaret singer. at one point she even sang with the benny goodman band (which is about the pe
ig of her era that i can figure). but, she got married to a hustler and immediately he started her career in different direction. he saw money to be made in a new emerging market called “party records”. these were just like those old ‘dirty blues’ numbers first pioneered in the market place by those black women blues singers.
Whenever folks got together for a party (with illegal booze and dirty dance steps of the moment) you needed sexy, saucy music to go with it properly. it’s called “FUN.” and the lyrics of these party songs did not disappoint. by today’s standards they barely raise an eyebrow, but back then this stuff was offensive enough to make people gasp and even faint. sorta cute how times change.
But, in order to get played to white people, just like rock and roll, it had to first be recorded by white people. so, the party record industry was born. the songs these early ‘white folks singing dirty’ sang were full of suggestive metaphorical language and innuendo that spoke heartily of sex and more sex. the idea of the gentle womenfolk actually singing this stuff was even ‘naughtier’ in the imagination. so, again, the women recording party records were even more popular than the men.
In fact there were many party records that sounded like southern black accented artists, but were almost entirely white men making fun of black people. amos and andy were an offshoot of this ‘minstralized’ tradition of institutionalized racism. somehow it was another step removed in the imagination of the listener, so that it was somehow ok to envision sex. such is the perversity of human sexuality. we wallow in such stuff now. we don’t even notice it. we’re all kinkier than hell and we don’t even realize it.
so, ruth switched over to ‘dirty songs’ – party music. her husband removed the middle man and started his/her own record label – “wallis original” records. he manufactured them and distributed them. they were sold openly over the counter (unlike most party records which were sold behind the counter in plain white sleeves and blank white record labels.) in this way, i think the two of them may have actually pioneered the notion of the classic underground “indie” label. the artist-created label to sell their own music is so standardized today, that i doubt we ever realize there had to be a first such label. ‘wallis original’ may actually be the first ‘over-the-counter’ underground indie label. but, i can’t be sure. the history of recordings is so sketchy that there must be some earlier precedents. but her record label succeeded where all the others vanished. she even had ‘hits’.
she was billed as “the saucy chantoosey” and ‘the queen of the party records.” she sang songs with titles like ‘sweater girl’, ‘tonight for sure’, ‘the fishing pole song’, ‘long playing daddy’, ‘stay out of my pantry’, ‘the hawaiian lei song’, ‘my old soldier (always tries)’ and ‘large size mama (small size papa)’. oh, so naughty!! some of her bigger selling ‘hits’ were “queer things’ and ‘he’d rather be a girl’ and even, “be gay, young lad.” i guess you could call her an innovator of gay culture, except the drag queens had been performing and recording this stuff for ages on their own labels hidden so deeply underground as to be almost invisible. that may have been where her husband got the idea of an indie label.
Ruth wallis was banned in boston (was she the first?) when she toured australia, her entire shipment of records were stopped at the border and confiscated as ‘obscene’. that only made her more popular than ever. she sold out everywhere she went.
As time went on, her example opened the doors for many many other, maybe far better, artists like rusty warren and ella mae morse. but, ruth wallis with all her sass was always there in the middle fighting for a buck. somehow she managed to actually pave the way for the indie label renaissance of the last 50 years. think of all those punk rockers, rockabilly madmen, soul singers and independent singer/songwriters of today stepping exactly in the same high heeled shoe prints she left behind. sorta beautiful , ain’t it?
AC:ruth wallis is not blues. it’s party music. the similarities end with the ‘dirty’ lyrics. the naughtiness of the early blues sung by women is the point of similarity – not the music itself. i don’t want anybody who reads this to walk away with the idea that ruthie was a blues singer. she was a ‘bawdy’ singer.