Narendra Kusnur Remembers The Women In Blues Ahead Of The Mahindra Blues Festival

Narendra Kusnur Remembers The Women In Blues Ahead Of The Mahindra Blues Festival

The much-awaited festival in Mumbai’s cultural calendar is an all-women affair this year

Narendra KusnurUpdated: Saturday, January 13, 2024, 01:55 PM IST
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Bonnie Raitt |

In a month from now, on February 10 and 11, the much-awaited Mahindra Blues Festival will be held at the Mehboob Studios, Bandra. Since it was launched in 2011, the event has been a major highlight in Mumbai’s cultural calendar. Though it had to skip the 2021 edition following the pandemic, and curtail the 2022 show at a different venue, it came back with a bang last year.

In an interesting turn, the organisers have made this year’s festival an all-women affair. Though the main tagline ‘The Blues Live Here’ remains the same, there is an additional sub-title of ‘Celebrating The Women In Blues’. The line-up will thus include American blues musicians Beth Hart, Samantha Fish, Sheryl Youngblood, Dana Fuchs and Vanessa Collier, besides Shillong-based Tipriti Kharbangar, known as vocalist of Soulmate.

It’s a brave decision, considering that whenever one talks of favourites, the names of men like BB King, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy or Howling Wolf immediately come to mind. Yet, though the blues world has been dominated by men, some women have played a pioneering role. As a build-up to the forthcoming fiesta, this column shall remember some of the blues queens. Starting with the early greats, we shall round off with Bonnie Raitt, the bridge between old and new.

Let’s begin with some trivia, which will be known to hardcore fans but maybe not to general audiences. Many people associate the song Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out with Eric Clapton, but it was actually written in the 1920s by pianist Jimmie Cox and popularised by Bessie Smith, known as the Empress Of The Blues. Secondly, the song When The Levee Breaks, made famous by Led Zeppelin, was first written and recorded in 1929 by Memphis Minnie and her second husband Kansas Joe McCoy.

The first female blues artiste to make waves was Mamie Smith, whose 1920 song Crazy Blues was an anthem against abuse by men. Other early legends included Ma Rainey, known as Mother of the Blues, and Billie Holiday, who was called First Lady Of The Blues but played an equal role in jazz standards and swing. Alberta Hunter, Sippie Wallace and Ethel Waters started off by singing the blues but soon shifted to swing, which became popular in the 1930s. Songs by these artistes are available on streaming platforms and YouTube. In fact, the remastered version of Alberta Hunter’s When I Was Down: The 1922 Recordings and the Ethel Waters compilation Am I Blue were recently put out on the streaming platforms.

The next couple of decades saw some marvellous renditions by Big Mama Thornton, Koko Taylor and Etta James. Thornton was the first to record Hound Dog, made famous by Elvis Presley. She also wrote and recorded Ball & Chain, later popularised by Janis Joplin, who always cited Thornton as a huge influence. Another hugely influential figure was gospel-blues artiste Sister Rosetta Tharpe, often described as the Godmother of Rock N’ Roll, The fact that she influenced Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lewis and Eric Clapton speaks volumes.

Some singers specialised in other genres, but excelled whenever they sang the blues. These include Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Dinah Washington, Hadda Brooks and Nina Simone. One could check out the 1967 album Nina Simone Sings The Blues for some exquisite artistry.

That brings us to Bonnie Raitt. Ever since she released her self-titled debut in 1971, the singer-guitarist had churned out a series of albums blending blues with rock, folk and country. Her 2022 album Just Like That is recommended for beginners.

Surely, women have played a crucial role in the blues. This year’s edition will be a celebration of just that. The festival has so far featured known blueswomen like Shemekia Copeland, Susan Tedeschi, Ana Popovic and the Larkin Poe sisters, besides soul singer Joss Stone. With Beth Hart and Dana Fuchs making their second appearance, and Samantha Fish high on the popularity charts, this year’s event should be fabulous.

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