Zora Neale Hurston January 7 1891 – January 28 1960
“I love myself when I am laughing. . . and then again when I am looking mean and impressive.”…now that’s a long but irresistible title for a book. In 1975, 7 years before “The Color Purple” made her name, Alice Walker wrote “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” for Ms magazine. In 1979 she edited an anthology of Hurston’s work & blessed it with this eye-catching tongue-twister of a title. It’s a selection of autobiography, fiction & folklore from between 1920 & 1950, writing of great energy, individuality & integrity. Who the heck was Zora Neale Hurston ? Where had she been all my life ?
Zora is connected to the Harlem Renaissance, an African-American blossoming of culture, philosophy & politics in the years between the World Wars, between days of slavery & the change that gonna come. By the time she arrived on this vibrant scene in 1925, as the sole black student at Barnard College, she had seen & done some things for herself. Raised in Eatonville Florida, one of the first self-governing all black municipalities in the USA, her experience of self-determination, independent of white society, influenced her strongly held views which often found her at at odds with her contemporaries. Aged 26 Zora, in order to finish high school before enrolling in college, adjusted her age down by 10 years. With those cheekbones it seems that she got away with it.
Her autobiography “Dust Tracks on a Road” (1942) took liberties with the truth too but is an individual, funny, poignant story, Apparently Zora was quite something back in the day. You don’t hear the word “sassy” much today, “when Zora was there, she was the party.”, her spirit & her intellect show in her writing. As an anthropologist she studied obeah in Jamaica, voodoo in Haiti, the stories of the South in the US. The best known of her 4 novels, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (1937) makes use of a vernacular which can look awkward today, the story of Janie Crawford, a woman finding her own voice at a time when people didn’t want to hear it, abides as a story that we should know.
Zora spent her later years back in Florida, in bad health, working as a maid, dying in poverty. She remains significant & to be celebrated in her own write, as an influence & inspiration to those who followed, preparing the way for Toni Morrison, the blessed Maya & others. Alice Walker, posing as a niece (Zora would have approved), located the unmarked grave in Fort Pierce & placed a headstone inscribed “Zora Neale Hurston: A Genius of the South” Amen !
“Sometimes I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can anyone deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”
Mavis Staples July 10, 1939
From all the great voices I could have chosen Billie Holiday, Nina Simone (Gigi Mac beat me to it !) or Aretha Franklin. The word “underrated” is banned at this blog, none of the people I choose to celebrate are overlooked round our house. Mavis Staples is there in the pantheon of with all those women singers who made living in the 20th century better than it could have been.
Of course we are not the only ones to hold Mavis in such high regard. Her last 3 records (there’s a new one I’ve yet to investigate) were produced by Ry Cooder & Jeff Tweedy. In the late 1980s she was signed to Paisley Park records by Prince. Her group, the Staple Singers are featured singing “The Weight” in the Band’s movie “The Last Waltz”. Then there was her friendship with Bob Dylan who, back in the day, asked her father if he could marry his young, beautiful daughter. You may not have heard Mavis sing in 1963 but she was as fresh & joyous as this photograph. What’s not to love ?
Patriarch Roebuck “Pops” Staples led his family on quite a journey in the 1960s. Mavis had been singing with her siblings since she was 11 years old & their gospel-folk sound found them work beyond the parochial church circuit. Pops had a good ear, just as the mystery of “Uncloudy Day” impressed Dylan the Staple Singers recorded “Blowing in the Wind” & then Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With”. His friendship with Martin Luther King led to songs of freedom & redemption. The first LP released on signing to Stax Records in 1968 was titled “Soul Folk in Action”. Stax had an eye on making a star out of Mavis, there were solo records, a double LP of duets but the family ties that bind were stronger than the lure of putting herself out there.
And she was right. By 1971 the Staples Singers were ready for their close-up. Wattstax, Soul Train, the toppermost of the poppermost. In a Golden Age of Soul Music Pops & his young, gifted & black daughters, Cleotha, Yvonne & Mavis, didn’t say it loud, they stated their case clearly, considerately & consciously.”Respect Yourself”, “I’ll Take You There”, “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)” & many others, music for the head & heart. At the centre was lead singer Mavis, soulful, spiritual & gorgeous, taking us to church, keeping us on the right path. When Curtis Mayfield wanted to record the more secular “Let’s Do It Again” with the group Pops had some reservations. Praise be to your chosen deity that the record exists.Here’s another good one…”got to get up as soon as you get down”.
Mavis is 76 now, so lovely, still performing & a legend. Her work with Jeff Tweedy rewards a listen & she is by no means on the golden oldie circuit. Those images of her, with her sisters, are exalting & exhilarating. The message, “Respect Yourself” keeps on keeping on
“I’m singing these songs to inspire you, to keep you going, to lift you up and give you a reason to get up in the morning.”
Bessie “BB” Stringfield. 1911-1993
Born in Kingston Jamaica, moved to Boston but orphaned at 5 years old, Bessie Stringfield was given her first motorcycle, an Indian, by her adoptive mother when she was 16. Before she was out of her teens she had developed a taste for Harley Davidsons, was looking for adventure & hoped to find it on the road. She began the first of 8 trips across the USA, crossing 48 states. Can you imagine what it was like for a young woman travelling solo on a hog in 1930s America ? You can try but you won’t get near to the stories that Bessie could have told us.
Often there was no place for her to sleep out in the Wild West & the segregated South. With her jacket across the handlebars as a pillow she would spend the night with her bike. To make a few bucks she entered hill-climbing races, performed stunts & acrobatics at carnivals & fairs. In World War II she served as a civilian courier for the US Army for 4 years, crossing the country on her blue Harley. After the war she settled in Florida, becoming known as “The Motorcycle Queen of Miami”, founding the Iron Horse Motorcycle Club while working as a nurse, acknowledged as a “Hero of Harley Davidson” & riding to the end of her life. Bessie Stringfield’s unlikely & audacious experiences would make a great fictional character. She was for real & she rocked.
“I was somethin’.