Sunday, February 14, 2010

Ethel Waters: Black History Month, Part II

I was wandering around Barnes & Noble this afternoon and on my way home listened to the collection of Ethel Waters songs on my IPod. I had not listened to her music for two years. She recorded most of her music in the 1920's. But what really hit me as I was driving were the lyrics of "(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue?." Here are they are:

Out in the street, shufflin' feet
Couples passin' two by two
While here am I, left high and dry
Black, and 'cause I'm black I'm blue

Browns and yellers, all have fellers
Gentlemen prefer them light
Wish I could fade, can't make the grade
Nothing but dark days in sight

Cold, empty bed, springs hard as lead
Pains in my head, feel like old Ned
What did I do to be so black and blue?

No joys for me, no company
Even the mouse ran from my house
All my life through I've been so black and blue

I'm white inside, it don't help my case
'Cause I can't hide, what is on my face, oh!

I'm so forlorn, life's just a thorn
My heart is torn, why was I born?
What did I do to be so black and blue?

'Cause you're black, folks think you lack
They laugh at you, and scorn you too
What did I do to be so black and blue?

When you are near, they laugh and sneer
Set you aside and you're denied
What did I do to be so black and blue?

How sad I am, each day I feel worse
My mark of Ham seems to be a curse, oh

How will it end? ain't got a friend
My only sin is my skin
What did I do to be so black and blue?

You can click on the video link above to get the full flavor of the song. The song is a tale of self loathing, sort of the reverse of black pride. But I think it is a perfect reflection of the pre WWII era. African Americans were expected to act like second class citizens in public and private. And I am sure her white audiences loved it as much has she probably hated herself for singing it because she needed the money. I Googled her name and came up with this brief description of her childhood: "Ethel Waters was born to a 12 year old mother, Louise Anderson, who had been raped by a white man, John Waters. Although she was raised by her maternal grandmother, she took her father's surname. Reared in poverty, she left school at the age of 13 in order to support herself through domestic housework." Not exactly a pretty picture. But she persevered as did many black entertainers of the time. And there were many: Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald, Shirley Bassey, and Julie Christy. These were people who came up from the streets. At least one, Billie Holiday, was a former prostitute. And the lives of the others were probably just as difficult and tragic. But the drudgery, poverty, and overt discrimination made them what they are and caused them to produce the music they did. And great music it is. It is really too bad that the great black musicians pre-1960 do not get the recognition they deserve.


  1. R. Crumb collects these 78s and released a great cd recently of similar artists from his personal collection.

  2. Ethel Waters was one of the most important female singer of American blues, jazz and gospel vocalist and actress.This song is one of her best ones, my grandfather has the original album of the song.

  3. Ethel Waters is one of the great singers and i like her singing her voice is great.

  4. This Ethel water song is really good. This songs really touch my hearts. This is songs is sensitive. Nice way you explain your thought.