Early blues singer Lizzie Miles sang to us, not for herself

Lizzie Miles
Portrait of Lizzie Miles from Know Lousiana, Lousiana Endowment for the Humanities.

Not long ago, Florida poet Odd Rod Borisade, whom I often refer to as ‘America’s Poet,’ said something on Facebook that stuck with me because it’s applicable to any artist. 

Rod tours a lot, and he expressed his philosophy about poetry as targeting the “people”, not the poetry.

It was a sentiment that might translate to music as well. Too often I see bands and vocalists who seem to be performing for themselves instead of the people listening. This is a cross cultural thing, and it isn’t confined to a single type of music.

I realize guitar fanatics like those lengthy riffs and some listeners love nothing more than to hear a soloist warble at length to demonstrate range. So my opinion is just that—my opinion.

I guess I’m a minimalist of sorts. I don’t like synthetic music. I like it raw and authentic, one reason I love early blues (not to be confused with today’s blues).

So much of the early blues and other musical styles as well were pure, devoid of theatrics, synthesizers, and breasts that appeared to shoot bullets from cones. One early blues vocalist I admire is Lizzie Miles. Lizzie Miles was her stage name; her legal name was Elizabeth Mary Landreaux.

Lizzie sang a tune called “Cottonbelt Blues,” with Clarence Johnson accompanying her on piano. The song was recorded in July, 1923 on the Victor record label.

When I did writing workshops, I’d often tell aspiring artists to focus on truths related to the human condition. I do realize identity art, even self-indulgent art, is all the rage now, but to me, the great art most often hit on truths relevant to anyone, regardless of complexion, creed, or ethnicity.

Never was a truer song written than “Cottonbelt Blues.”

When I was a young girl, many of us in the little mill village where I grew up would spend afternoons on the porch of a black woman named Aunt Addie. She was a phenomenal story-teller. By the time I was in what we then called junior high school, I was waking up to civil rights issues and I penned an editorial that the local newspaper published. I asked Aunt Addie why she came back to our little town after living in New York.

At the time, I thought that was crazy. Who wouldn’t want to live in New York?

She told me things were worse “up there than they are down here.” I struggled to understand that as a ‘tween. I understand it completely now.

“Cottonbelt Blues” hits on that theme—missing home even though home had problems aplenty. Compared, I guess to the coldheartedness of big metro areas, maybe home didn’t seem so bad to many.

Here’s an excerpt from that song:

“Far from my Southern home.
Dixie Dan. That’s the man.
Took me from the Land of Cotton
To that cold, cold minded North.
Threw me down. Hit the town.
And I’ve never seen him henceforth.
Just cause I trusted. I’m broke and disgusted,
I got the Cotton Belt Blues.”

I knew a number of women, some who were kin, who fled their small towns for dreams of life in a big city. I always though “Cottonbelt Blues” summed up the disappointment in a way many of us, regardless of ethnicity, can identify with.

I love the simplicity of this song, the sterling talent of the vocals and piano. Miles was singing about herself, but singing to all of us who sought a bigger dream, only to redefine it. Miles had a long career in the entertainment business, touring and performing at a time when there was little technology to improve the sound of your voice if you didn’t have one to start with.

I guess it shows my age when I say, They don’t make music like that anymore.

Also, if you’re not familiar with Rod Borisade’s work, you should be. No poet is more authentic or talented.

(Kay B. Day/Jan. 22, 2018)

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