You might get reminded of your father when you hear the word ‘Daddy’ but when Clara Smith—the queen of ‘Moaner's blues’—says,
‘’My daddy went away, a week ago today
How am I gonna find another coffee grinder
To do my grindin' like my sweet man could do?’’
It doesn’t quite fit, right? Of course she is not missing the coffee which her father used to make for her and you will only realize it after listening to this song.
Clara Smith. A black girl born in South Carolina in 1894. Sadly, this is the only information available about her childhood. Apart from the names of her parents there is no record of her childhood in history. We don't know if she went to school or not, but the census of the time indicates that she could read and write.
Her career started in 1918 in a ‘Gypsy Tent Show’. Born in a poor home (which was the case with most blacks in those days), and with no musical training, she began working in vaudeville as a means to earn money. Vaudeville was very popular in America at the time. The idea was similar to the ‘Tent shows’, moving from one village to another. But the music, acting and dances in the vaudevilles were sexual, sensual and humorous. (Black humor is a whole subject of study.) Clara, who started her career as a vaudeville singer, was spotted by Columbia Records in 1923 and her life finally changed. Columbia signed her primarily for her sweet yet extremely earthy and raw voice and, of course, her lyrics full of sensual inspiration and contradictions.
The double negatives from her hit ‘Ain’t got nobody to grind my coffee’ sound unusual to us but you'll find them in most jazz and blues numbers as it is the true charm of the vernacular English of African Americans. The term 'Daddy' was popularized by Clara Smith and her contemporary blues singers. However, the word came into use around 1670. The prostitutes would call their pimps 'Daddy' back in time. But the word ‘Daddy’ in Clara’s blues refers to the older men who would look after young women to fulfil their carnal desires. These men were richer than the lassies. In return for the physical pleasure these singers gave them, they were expected to fulfil the financial needs of these women, not to forget with love! Clara was used to having such men around her all the time and this particular song is exactly about losing a ‘Daddy’. When he got out of hand she said,
Ain't got nobody to light my brand new percolator
Ain't got nobody to heat my oven duly!
These were the songs that suited Clara's lifestyle. These lines may seem to be referring to Clara's kitchen but the slight innocent flirtatiousness in her voice and her unique vocals that draw out each word like a complaint, make it immediately clear that she’s referring to something else by ‘lighting the percolator’ and ‘heating her oven’! Clara used the humor from her bedroom life to reach people's hearts. She doesn’t hesitate when she says,
‘’My daddy used to love me pretty, I'll confess
Believe me, he could do it different from the rest!’’
She doesn't shy away from telling us what made her daddy 'different'. On the contrary, she became popular by revealing such interesting anecdotes from her private life and not barring the audacious words. A society weary of war and oppression welcomed her bold and fiery approach to life and men.
Clara Smith is known as the 'Moaning Queen' because of her unique singing style. In many of her songs, her crooning moan is so loud that you can't hear her songs loudly in a public place! She truly revolutionized blues singing with her style.
Crores of women who were fed up with their situation in the patriarchal and unequal society, tired of their husbands and constantly shunned by caucasians for being black became her fans. She was the face of modern feminism in the 20th century. A world-famous jazz artist Louis Armstrong couldn't help noticing her. He recorded six songs with her in 1925 for Columbia Records. She also recorded a few duets with the ‘Empress of Blues’ Bessie Smith but unfortunately the two singers would never work together again after getting into a heated argument during which Bessie slugged Clara.
At the end of the song Clara says.
‘’ Ain't got nobody who could put me to a test
and do my grinding for me, I say’’
It shows that Clara was definitely addicted to the 'daddy' lifestyle. Her feminine longing for her Daddy’s presence and his financial support is evident. She expressed her desires as freely as men, which was revolutionary for that time.
When a woman like Clara says, lashing out at the Victorian social system that barred women from expressing their opinions and subjugated them forever,
‘’I've got everything that a woman needs, to make a good man fall’’
Or when she gives a valuable advice to women saying "Don't advertise your man", she becomes a true rebel and a feminist. It's unfortunate that we don't know much about these women who popularized the word 'daddy' in today's Instagram era where ‘Daddy’ is one of most trending hashtags! Today's modern, free-spirited woman was the dream these women manifested, and in a way, we owe it to them.