I know who I want to be when I grow up.
“I’m having a good time / Please don’t blame me,” she sings to me, her voice full of laughter.
“I’m knocking myself out. Don’t try to tame me.
Let me have my fun, I’ve got to have my fling . . . .
I’m playing it cool while I’m living, because tomorrow, I may die.
That’s why I’m having a convention today, and I ain’t passing nothing by.
So if I make my bed hard, that’s my problem, let me lay.
I’m having a good time, living my life today.
Her name was Alberta Hunter. Born on April Fools’ Day, she felt that age was a “condition of the mind” (Taylor and Cook 253), and she lived her life to prove it. I can’t change my birthdate, but I can lie, can’t I? I’ve got the fool part down, anyway.
Trouble is, that’s the part I have to grow out of, because Miss Hunter was no fool. I’m working on it.
It’s a step in the right direction, though, because she believed that with hard work, passion, and laughter, you could achieve anything you set out to do. And that you should take responsibility for whatever was yours: “So if I make my road rough–that’s the price I have to pay [not you],” she’d sing. She never worried much about nay-sayers. If anything, they just made her more stubborn and the sparkle in her eye brighter. She always did what she loved and drew strength from it. She had no patience for those “who thought God made them and threw the pattern away,” and she knew that giving of yourself, bringing smiles to others, was the most important thing in life. She only got better as she got older.
She was a “singer of songs,” who refused to be pigeon-holed. Hunter was one of the only successful female blues composers, though she could never read or write a note of music or tell a band what key a song was going to be in. But she knew a false note when she heard it, and in 1923, with Lovie Austin, she wrote a little tune called “The Downhearted Blues,” which she recorded for Paramount. It sold well, she was encouraged to write more, and given a good contract. But then came the woman Hunter called “the world’s greatest Blues singer, that awful Bessie Smith,” who made “Downhearted Blues” forever her song, selling 800,000 records. Hunter loved Bessie, loved her version of the song, but she still sang it her way . . . and loved collecting the royalties.
Hunter gave every song her own spin. As she sang, she improvised words that came to her, often bringing surprised laughter from her audience with witty double-entendres or unexpected twists to old songs. And her twists, like her twists in life itself, are always about verve, about life-affirming, don’t-let-anything-get-you-down-or-keep-you-down verve. “A lot of people take a beautiful ballad, they sing it slowly, tell you they’re singing the blues,” she once said. “Don’t believe them. I’m gonna sing you some blues, so help me.” She knew that when you’re singing the blues, “You’re telling a story. Blues are a song from your soul. When you’re singing the blues, you’re singing” (Taylor and Cook 37). And then she’d let you know that when life threw you a curve, you had “take a chance and gamble / Lord, everywhere [you] go.”
She was no stranger to taking the gamble. She was on her own from the time she was 12 — or 16, depending on who’s telling the story. Alberta Hunter never let a little thing like chronology pin her down. She ran from Memphis to Chicago, escaping her stepfather’s fists and her school principal’s lecherous advances. And she wouldn’t stop singing, even when people told her that she was terrible. During a time when many people said that “you sing blues and jazz, and you’re on your way to the devil with a hat on” (Taylor and Cook 38), Hunter just “grabbed the lyrics, shook them, stomped on them and then picked them up and caressed them” (Washington Post, 8 January 1979, B9), all the while carrying herself like a lady. Touched by her passion, dignity, and sheer bull-headedness, the prostitutes and gamblers of Chicago took her under their wing, made sure she stayed safe, and cultivated her talents. Others may have had stronger voices, but Hunter knew how to work an audience like no one else, and she had stories to tell. Before long, she was a headliner at Chicago’s famous Dreamland, and then a recording star. When World War II came, she devoted herself to singing for the troops with the USO.
She quit performing in 1955 because she decided she was too old for the hard life on the road, and began volunteering in a New York City hospital, soon becoming an LPN. In 1977, Hunter was forcibly retired, after 20 years of service to the NYC hospital, because they thought she was 70.
Hunter had them fooled, though. She was 82.
And just about to launch her second career as a performer, her voice stronger than it ever was, seasoned now and full of laughter. She recorded numerous albums and was “rocking” her “castle” at sell-out performances until her death in 1984 at the age of 89. A little thing like chronology never got her down.
Even when singing about heartbreak or devastation, her focus was never on the hardship or the heartbreak, but how to turn it around. Take the old standard, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” While many artists sing this as a song of betrayal and brokenhearted abandonment, full of feelings of worthlessness and self-effacement, Hunter’s version is a bit different.
The opening of the song is familiar, but the tune jazzier, and you can hear the laughter in her voice from the beginning, as she starts adding little asides, slightly altering the lyrics —
A good man is hard to find
Yes, you always get the other kind,
And when you think he’s your regular pal
You’ll look for him and find him messin’ round some other gal
Then you’ll rage, yes, you’ll crave
You’ll want to see him dead [you want to kill him] and in his grave
Now if your man is nice,
Take my advice:
Hug him in the morning
kiss him late at night,
Give him loads of lovin’
and be sure to treat him right
‘Cause a good man nowadays is hard to find
The song continues as many others sing it, except for the verve in her voice, emphasizing how women should treat their men right, be grateful for what they get. Then we get to the last chorus, with an unexpected bit of advice:
But if he won’t be nice,
Take my advice:
Hug him in the morning,
Kiss him late at night
And bop him over the head with a brick a few times
And I’ll bet he’ll treat you right
And then from then on, that man of yours won’t be so hard to find.
Hunter’s songs are about empowerment, about turning the tables, about never letting anything get you down or keep you there. Songs that originally were sad, pleading, or self-deprecating become affirming in her hands. Take “You Can’t Tell the Difference After Dark.” Most of the song is about how the singer has been told how unattractive she is — and her repeated assertion that these things, though true, don’t matter because “you can’t tell the difference after dark.” But again, Hunter’s improvisations on the lyrics slowly turn her version around. The lines,
They say that gentlemen prefer the blonde-haired ladies,
Tell me I’m out of style, just because I’m slightly shady
become this in Hunter’s phrasing:
They say that gentlemen prefer blonde-haired ladies,
You must be out of your mind, if you think I’m out of style just because I’m a little bit shady
Normally this is a song combining abject self-deprecation and determined self-assertion, as the singer repeats, “You can’t tell the difference after dark.” In Hunter’s hands, however, it becomes a manifesto that overturns societal standards of beauty and desirability (and remember, folks, she’s in her 80s when she’s singing this).
Wait until I’ve won you,
And laid this unique jive of mine upon you,
You can’t tell the difference after dark
Some say there is a difference,
And I’ve been told, there’s an amazing difference . . . after dark. [Yeah, man]
She sang songs, too, that parodied women’s romantic expectations for men, and the distance between their claims and reality, like her “Rough and Ready Man”; in her hands a song of longing becomes a riotous and outrageous tall tale. “I don’t want no man that’s lazy,” she sang, “no man that tries to shirk.
I want a two-fisted, double-jointed, rough and ready man
I want a hard-working, no-shirking, good and steady man. . .
Now, he can be knock-kneed, box-ankled,
He can even have frog eyes
But, honey, that won’t make a bit of difference if he’s okay otherwise
. . .
When he snores I want the force to blow the bedclothes to the floor,
And the breezes from his wheezes to knock the padlock off the door.
When I come home some morning all dressed up like Esther’s horse,
I want him to grab me and tear off all my clothes, just to let me know who’s boss
. . .
I want a man who won’t let his children play with neither dog nor cat,
But will drag in a skunk or a lion and say, “Here, you kids, play with that!”
I want a two-fisted, double-jointed, rough and ready man [is that clear to you?]
A rough and ready man!
In February of 1979, Hunter was asked to sing at the White House. She brought down the house, especially with one song that she chose, as she later told the President, to put a little spice in the evening. The song begins tamely enough, declaring,
Now, whoever said a good man was hard to find,
Positively, absolutely sure was blind.
‘Cause I’ve just found the best man that ever was
And here’s just a few of the things that he does:
As the lyrics unfolded, though, First Lady Rosalyn Carter’s eyes got huge, her hand came up involuntarily, and her mouth froze in a silent “O.”
He shakes my ashes, greases my griddle
Churns my butter and he strokes my fiddle
My man is such a handy man
Now he threads my needle, and he creams my wheat
Heats my heater and he chops my meat [he’s a mess]
My man is such a handy man
I’d love to give you all the lyrics, because the song only gets better, and Hunter had a tendency, as always, to improvise new lyrics as she went along, but you really have to hear it. The song is on both of the CDs listed below, but I can’t help but share two verses that I imagine made the First Lady’s eyes almost bug out of her head:
And do you know, sometimes he’s up w-a-y before dawn
Busy cleanin’ the rough edges off my lawn
My man is such a handy man
Now, he never has a single word to say
while he’s working hard [oh, so hard]
And I’d give anything if you could see the way
He handles my front yard
You’ve got to love a woman who chooses to sing this song when invited to the White House. We all need a little spice in our lives. And even more, you’ve got a love a woman who can verbally pat the gleefully scandalized First Lady on the cheek, telling her that “Sex is only a condition of the mind. Like age. Drink some lemonade and forget about it.”
Hunter kept performing, almost to the end, her imperative to “tell the stories” and share the laughter stronger than her failing body. They’d wheel her out on stage in a wheelchair, stopping about ten feet from the piano. She’d get up and toddle precariously to the instrument, the audience holding their collective breath, sure that they were about to witness her last moment on earth. She’d put her hand on the sound board of the piano, apparently to steady herself, nod to her accompanist, and she’d sing, rocking the auditorium for a solid two hours. Finally, amid standing ovations, she would toddle precariously back to the wheelchair. As I say, a little thing like the expected chronologies for our lives never bothered her much. Can a person do anything but aspire to such heights?
Okay, so I’m never going to grow up to be a famous singer. Only a good (and slightly addled) friend could be nostalgic for my voice, but like Miss Hunter, I believe in the power of the stories that come from the soul, sharing yourself, sharing the smiles, and defying expectations when they get in your way.
I may never even grow up. But I’m working on it, day by day. Pass me the lemonade.
©Sharon McCoy, 3 October 2011, revised 9 October 2011.
In memory of Alberta Hunter, 1 April 1895-17 October 1984, in appreciation for the smiles she still gives.
Hunter, Alberta. Amtrak Blues, Columbia Records/CBS, 1980.
—. Downhearted Blues Live at the Cookery, Varese Sarabande Records, 1988.
Frank C. Taylor, with Gerald Cook. Alberta Hunter, A Celebration in Blues. New York, et al.: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1987