Tag Archives: aging
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. Continue reading →