Posts about music and musicians

Lee Mixashawn Rozie is a Jazz Musician, Educator and ‘The Wave Artist’. He has a fabulous take on the world in terms of waves from light speeds, to sound, to the slow waves of the mountains, to the sea that connects the world and brought colonialism. His take as an indigenous American, to Cornish, to African roots and looking at identity.

In his own words:

“Lee Mixashawn Rozie has been a practicing multi-disciplinary and internationally acclaimed Jazz artist for the past three decades. Mr. Rozie holds a degree in History and Ethnomusicology from Trinity College and is equally at home in academic and cultural settings. Beginning from the point of Indigenous artist, using ancient cultural principles, maritime arts and historical data, both written and oral, he has developed a system of “Hemispheric Principles” to inform and guide his artform, more directly referred to as “Wave Art”: sonic, aquatic percussive and harmonic. Mixashawn offers musical performance and educational workshops on Indigenous music traditional and contemporary, as well as original, workshops that utilize his extensive experience as performer, Indigenous artist and educator to inspire creativity and natural expression for all ages.”

He’s a descendant of the ‘exquisite violinist’ and composer, Joseph Antonio Emidy who was abandoned in Falmouth, Cornwall, England in 1799. He had been pressganged by Admiral Sir Edward Pellew from Lisbon, when Pellew heard him play as the virtuoso violinist in the Lisbon Opera. Pellew was the grandson of Humphrey Pellew, who built half of Flushing on his wealth gained from enslaved Africans who worked his tobacco plantation in Maryland.[1] Born in Guinea in 1775, Emidy had been enslaved by Portuguese slave traders and recognised for his musical talent he was given a violin and taught to play it. Emidy went on to set up and lead the Truro Philharmonic Orchestra.[2]

Thanks to Marjorie A Emidy who traced her ancestors and her distant cousins. She cam to Falmouth in 1999, to bicentenary of Joseph Emidy’s arrival in Falmouth. A plaque for Joseph Emidy was placed in the local King Charles Church of England church and the Tunde Jegede Ensemble put on a performance.[3]

This is a wonderful interview with Lee Mixashawn Rozie:

And here with some of his more traditional jazz music:

And here spanning 2 decades as a musician and educator:

Read more

Mixashawn has some lovely posts in his Facebook, you might want to listen to Didgeridoo Meets Orchestra or Mixashawn Trio in Concert late last year

Or see the Lee Mixashawn Rozie website

[1] See Susan Gay’s book Old Falmouth page 122 and in Wikipedia,_1st_Viscount_Exmouth

[2] Joseph Antonio Emidy in Black History Bootleg

[3] Tunde Jegede website and Emidy: He Who Dared Dream

Much more than a blind Black singer songwriter

Stevie Wonder has long supported the civil rights movement in the US and the world with his music. In addition to being an award winning musical innovator, he is a humanitarian who has used his music to support a number of social causes and political beliefs. Because of his disabilities he is blind Stevie was limited to in what he could do, but because of his enormous talent and popularity he could not be ignored.

He is probably best remembered for his campaign to make Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday a national holiday, Wonder released Happy Birthday (1980), a song celebrating Dr. King. The song became a hit and a rallying cry for the King Holiday.

On Monday, January 20, 1986, in cities and towns across the country people celebrated the first official Martin Luther King Day, the only federal holiday commemorating an African-American. Wonder’s song echoed as the anthem of the holiday.

But Stevie Wonder Civil Rights go much deeper than this single event.

The year prior to that in 1985 Stevie had dedicated his song ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’ to Nelson Mandela. Wonder also joined a number of musicians and entertainers, including Harry Belafonte, Quincy Jones, Lionel Ritchie, and Michael Jackson to produce the song We are the World (1985) to raise funds for humanitarian aid in Africa. He teamed with Gladys Knight and Dionne Warwick, and Elton John (1988) to produce That’s What Friends Are For to support AIDS charities.

Blind from infancy, Steveland Hardaway Judkins moved with his family to Detroit Michigan when he was four years old. When his mother later remarried, he changed his name to Steveland Morris. Young Steveland sang in his church’s choir, and by the time he was nine years old, he had mastered piano, drums and harmonica. Singer Ray Charles became his role model. The child prodigy was discovered in 1961 while performing for friends.

Music mogul Berry Gordy immediately signed him on the Motown label and changed his name to “Little Stevie Wonder.” His first album, A Tribute to Uncle Ray (1962) was released when Wonder was just twelve years old.

By the early 1970s, thought provoking Stevie Wonder albums like Talking Book (1972) Innervisions (1973) and Songs in the Key of Life (1976) propelled the musical genius to the pinnacle of his career, a track from this Pastime Paradise is the basis of Coolio’s ‘Gangsta Paradise with all the strong political despair it embodied and became an anthem for, and was featured in the film Dangerous Minds, starring Michel Pfeiffer.

His 1985 duet with former Beatle Paul McCarthy, “Ebony and Ivory,” became another social statement calling for racial harmony. Stevie Wonder was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. By 2006, Wonder had been awarded twenty-two Grammy awards and eighteen American Music awards.

In 2016, Stevie Wonder sang at the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture for then-President Barack Obama, the first black US president, and his predecessor George W. Bush, as well as thousands of Americans in Washington D.C. In 2014, Wonder was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.

That same year Steve Wonder gave a moving speech to the United Nations. In it, he recalled Nelson Mandela’s struggle for democracy, human rights and social justice. Mandela, the former South African president, was “one of the most fantastic, caring and loving people who ever moved on Mother Earth,” Wonder enthused.

Wonder expressed how much Mandela meant to him by naming one of his sons “Mandla” (which means “strength”). In 1985, when the South African activist and politician was still in prison, Wonder received an Oscar for the song “I Just Called To say I Love You,” which as we mentioned above he dedicated to Mandela. The apartheid regime reacted by banning Wonder’s music, he continued to campaign for Mandela’s release.

In 2017, Wonder sang with his son Kwarme Morris in New York City’s Central Park. Like all bands performing at the Global Citizen Festival, they had an agenda: to remind political decision-makers in the USA and around the world of their responsibility to end global poverty, tackle climate change and eliminate inequality by 2030.

Stevie Wonder has not remained silent during the current world crisis. Together with Lady Gaga, Billie Eilish and other stars, he took part in One World Together At Home streaming event in April. Organised by Global Citizen, World Health Organization and the United Nations, the goal was to raise funds for the COVID-19 Solidarity Response fund of the WHO.

International Civil Rights Walk of Fame: Stevie Wonder

Black Man by Stevie Wonder

Verse 1
First man to die
For the flag we now hold high [Crispus Attucks]
Was a black man
The ground were we stand
With the flag held in our hand
Was first the red man’s
Guide of a ship
On the first Columbus trip [Pedro Alonzo Nino]
Was a brown man
The railroads for trains
Came on tracking that was laid
By the yellow man

We pledge allegiance
All our lives
To the magic colors
Red, blue and white
But we all must be given
The liberty that we defend
For with justice not for all men
History will repeat again
It’s time we learned
This world was made for all men

Verse 2
Heart surgery
Was first done successfully
By a black man [Dr Daniel Hale Williams]
Friendly man who died
But helped the pilgrims to survive [Squanto]
Was a red man
Farm workers rights
Were lifted to new heights [César Chávez]
By a brown man
Incandescent light
Was invented to give sight [Thomas Edison]
By the white man

We pledge allegiance
All our lives
To the magic colors
Red, blue and white
But we all must be given
The liberty that we defend
For with justice not for all men
History will repeat again
It’s time we learned
This world was made for all men

Hear me out

Now I know the birthday of a nation
Is a time when a country celebrates
But as your hand touches your heart
Remember we all played a part in America
To help that banner wave

Verse 3
First clock to be made
In America was created
By a black man [Benjamin Banneker]
Scout who used no chart
Helped lead Lewis and Clark
Was a red woman [Sacagawea]
Use of martial arts
In our country got its start
By a yellow man [Bruce Lee]
And the leader with a pen
Signed his name to free all men
Was a white man [Abraham Lincoln]

We pledge allegiance
All our lives
To the magic colors
Red, blue and white
But we all must be given
The liberty that we defend
For with justice not for all men
History will repeat again
It’s time we learned
This world was made for all men

Singer – Songwriter – Musician – Actor – Civil Rights Activist

This blog is long overdue for a man who put himself on the line with his prominent Civil Rights activities and who is still kicking but today even though on the 1st March 2021 he saw his 94th birthday.

We should add before we skip through his life that this blog is also a ‘music party blog’ to be exact a CALYPSO PARTY.

Harry Belafonte was mentored in his political beliefs by Paul Robeson, he was also a close confident of Martin Luther King Jr. and as with many activists he came under the spotlight of ‘McCarthyism’ and was blacklisted.

Belafonte did not play at Civil Rights,he got his hands dirty and was in the mix, amongst the many, many things he was involved in are some notable historic moments.

He financed the ‘1961 Freedom Rides’, supported Voter Registration Drives, and helped to organise the 1963 March on Washington. During the 1963 Birmingham Campaign, he bailed Martin Luther King Jr. out of Birmingham City Jail and raised $50,000 to release other civil rights protesters and during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, Belafonte bankrolled the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, flying to Mississippi that August with Sidney Poitier and $60,000 in cash and entertaining crowds in Greenwood.

Harry Belafonte with Martin Luther King Jr

His list of political activities seem endless and always on the side of the oppressed – the underdog. In 1985, he helped organise and produce the song We Are the World, a multi-artist effort to raise funds for Africa and performed in the Live Aid concert that same year. In 1987 he became a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, he served as chairman of the ‘International Symposium of Artists and Intellectuals for African Children’.

No decade in his life did he seek a quiet life, by the new century he was campaigning against HIV-AIDS, he is on the board of directors of the non-profit making Civil Rights Advancement Project, he also served on the Advisory Council of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. He met with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and opposed George Bush Jr. Middle East war ambitions; on the Black members of the Bush administration, he used a Malcolm X quote when describing Colin Powell and Condeleeza Rice:

“There is an old saying, in the days of slavery. There were those slaves who lived on the plantation, and there were those slaves who lived in the house. You got the privilege of living in the house if you served the master, do exactly the way the master intended to have you serve him. That gave you privilege. 

Colin Powell is committed to come into the house of the master, as long as he would serve the master, according to the master’s purpose. And when Colin Powell dares to suggest something other than what the master wants to hear, he will be turned back out to pasture. And you don’t hear much from those who live in the pasture”

We could go on and on about this remarkable man’s life, and we have not yet mentioned that he made 35 films between 1953 and 2020 including Carmen Jones (1954) and Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (2018).

However let’s jump to the music that most people in the world remember him for, no small thing – he introduced CALYPSO MUSIC to the world.

The single Matilda (1953) became the first widely released Calypso song and was an instant success; this was followed in 1956 by the album Calypso. This album became the first album to sell over a million copies, including the first album to sell a million copies in England alone (I’ve got 2 vinyl copies just in case). Belafonte was nicknamed the King of Calypso, he liked the tag, but true to form he always emphasised that Trinidad & Tobaga were the origins of Calypso music.

At the beginning of his musical career he was a club singer, being backed by the likes of Charlie ParkerMax Roach and Miles Davis;  however at heart he saw himself as a ‘folk singer’, he studied material from the Library of Congress American Folk Songs Archives, in particular music of African Blackroots’, something that dominated his musical output for decades.

There are many things to admire this man for, but let’s be honest Calyso music put sunshine into everyone’s life and a smile on every face.

“sick and tired of being sick and tired”

Fannie Lou Townsend Hamer rose from these humble beginnings in the Mississippi Delta to become one of the most important, passionate, and powerful voices of the Civil & Voting Rights movements and a leader in the efforts for greater economic opportunities for African Americans.

She was born on October 6, 1917 in Montgomery County, Mississippi, the 20th and last child of sharecroppers Lou Ella and James Townsend. She grew up in poverty, and at age six Hamer joined her family picking cotton. By age 12, she left school to work. In 1944, she married Perry Hamer and the couple toiled on the Mississippi plantation owned by B.D. Marlowe until 1962. Because Hamer was the only worker who could read and write, she also served as plantation timekeeper.

Hamer began her Civil Rights activities in 1962, outraged when in 1961, she received a hysterectomy by a White doctor without her consent while undergoing surgery to remove a uterine tumor.

This forced sterilisation of Black women, as a way to reduce the Black population, was so widespread it was dubbed a ‘Mississippi appendectomy’. Unable to have children of their own, the Hamers adopted two daughters.

Not a women to be messed with, during her life she founded Freedom Farm Cooperative (FFC), co founded the National Women’s Political Caucus, worked and organised with Student Non Violence Coordinating Committee (SNCC), she co-founded the  Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), she started a ‘Pig Bank’, she was a member of the ‘Freedom Singers’ and sang with them (she also released an album Songs My Mother Taught Me on Folkway).

She partnered with the National Council of Negro Women, she survived a drive by shooting by the Ku Klux Klan and was fired on 16 times, she said:

“I guess if I’d had any sense, I’d have been a little scared – but what was the point of being scared? The only thing they could do was kill me, and it kinda seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time since I could remember”

– Fannie Lou Hamer was a formidable lady.

In the summer of 1962, Hamer attended a meeting led by Civil Rights Activists James Forman of the SNCC and James Bevel of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Hamer was incensed by efforts to deny Blacks the right to vote. She became a SNCC organiser and on August 31, 1962 led 17 volunteers to register to vote at the Indianola, Mississippi Courthouse.

In the early 1960s, Fannie Lou Hamer worked as a timekeeper on the Marlow Plantation. In late August of 1962, SNCC workers James Bevel and Bob Moses persuaded 18 Ruleville residents to go to the county courthouse in Indianola and attempt to register to vote. Mrs. Hamer was a part of this group which made a first unsuccessful attempt on August 31. Upon returning home, Hamer received an ultimatum from W.D. Marlow:

stop trying to register to vote or get off the plantation. Hamer had no intention of giving up the struggle for civil rights. Denied the right to vote due to an unfair literacy test, the group was harassed on their way home, when police stopped their bus and fined them $100 for the trumped-up charge that the bus was too yellow.

That night, Marlow fired Hamer for her attempt to vote; her husband was required to stay until the harvest. Marlow confiscated much of their property. She left the Marlow plantation and stayed with Mary Tucker, a friend living in Ruleville, Mississippi in Sunflower County with very little.

In June 1963, after successfully completing a voter registration program in Charleston, South Carolina, Hamer and several other Black women were arrested for sitting in a ‘Whites-only’ bus station restaurant in Winona, Mississippi. At the Winona jailhouse, she and several of the women were brutally beaten, leaving Hamer with lifelong injuries from a blood clot in her eye, kidney damage, and leg damage.

In 1964, Hamer’s national reputation soared as she co-founded the MFDP, which challenged the local Democratic Party’s efforts to block Black participation. Hamer and other MFDP members went to the Democratic National Convention that year, arguing to be recognized as the official delegation. When Hamer spoke before the Credentials Committee, calling for mandatory integrated state delegations.

President Lyndon Johnson held a televised press conference so she would not get any television airtime, he thought her an ignorant Black. But her speech, with its poignant descriptions of racial prejudice in the South, was televised later. By 1968, her vision for racial parity in delegations had become a reality and Hamer was a member of Mississippi’s first integrated delegation.

In 1964 she helped organise Freedom Summer, which brought hundreds of college students, Black and White, to help with African American voter registration in the segregated South. In 1964, she announced her candidacy for the Mississippi House of Representatives but was barred from the ballot. A year later, Hamer, Victoria Gray, and Annie Devine became the first Black women to stand in the U.S. Congress when they unsuccessfully protested the Mississippi House election of 1964. She also travelled extensively, giving powerful speeches on behalf of civil rights. In 1971, Hamer helped to found the National Women’s Political Caucus.

Frustrated by the political process, Hamer turned to economics as a strategy for greater racial equality. In 1968, she began a ‘Pig Bank’ to provide free pigs for Black farmers to breed, raise, and slaughter. A year later she launched the FFC, buying up land that Blacks could own and farm collectively. With the assistance of donors (including famed singer Harry Belafonte), she purchased 640 acres and launched a co-op store, boutique, and sewing enterprise. Hamer did not wish to have blacks be dependent on any group for any longer so, she wanted to give them a voice through an agricultural movement. She single-handedly ensured that 200 units of low-income housing were built—many still exist in Ruleville today.

The FFC lasted until the mid-1970s; at its heyday, it was among the largest employers in Sunflower County. Extensive travel and fundraising took Hamer away from the day-to-day operations, as did her failing health, and the FFC hobbled along until folding. Not long after, in 1977, Hamer died of breast cancer at age 59.

No eulogies can be too many for this wonderful human being who put herself in the firing line. Her memorial service was attended by over 1,500 people including Andrew Young, United States Ambassador to the United Nations, he spoke at the RCHS service, saying:

“None of us would be where we are now had she not been there then”.

Read – listen to more about Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Townsend Hamer – National Women’s History Museum, Virginia, US

Freedom Farm Cooperative – Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, US

National Women’s Political Caucus – National Women’s Political Caucus, US

Student Non Violence Coordinating Committee – Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, US

Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party – King’s Institute, Stanford University, US

Pig Bank‘ – Taylor & Francis Online

Freedom Singers’ – Black Past

Songs My Mother Taught Me‘ – 34 page downloadlable CD pamphlet liner

National Council of Negro Women,

She survived a drive by shooting by the Ku Klux Klan and was fired on 16 times – National Endowment for the Humanities

Singer – Songwriter – Civil Rights activist

“An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times. That to me is my duty, and at this crucial time in our lives when everything is so desperate, when every day is a matter of survival, I don’t think you can help but be involved”. “Young people, Black and White, know this. That’s why they’re so involved in politics. We will shape and mould this country; I will not be moulded and shaped at all anymore.”

Nina Simone, nicknamed the ‘High Priestess of Soul’, was an American jazz and blues musician of the late twentieth century. Born Eunice Waymon on 21st February 1933 (and lived until 2003), she moved to New York and then Philadelphia to study classical piano, before transforming herself into a nightclub performer and jazz vocalist. While she is mostly known for her illustrious musical career, she also became an outspoken advocate for civil rights. Simone used her music to discuss her views and her rage at the injustice of racism and segregation.

Many people know Simone’s music without knowing her politics, it was unique and had a magic of its own even if you are not political, but she would probably tell that sitting on the fence quietly minding your own business is “not good enough”, and she would never say that in a whisper.

Throughout her adult life her activist friends from politics, to the arts and those she was comfortable with, reads like the who’s who of Civil Rights including Miriam Makeba, Malcolm X, Lorraine Hansberry, Stokely Charmichael,  James Baldwin, Martin Luther King the list is near endless.

Nina Simone and James Baldwin

Eunice Waymon’s (Nina) Civil Rights activities began at a young age. At the age of 12, Simone refused to play at a church revival because her parents had to sit at the back of the hall. From then on, Simone used her art to take a stand. Note: She chose the name Simone after the French actress Simone Signoret to hide from her mother the fact that she was playing the Devils Music (Jazz) at concerts.

In 1964 Simone released one of her most powerful protest songs Mississippi Goddam (see below), a musical response to the murder of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that killed four Black girls. Composed in less than an hour, it is a song that expresses her deep rage, and fury over these events. It also served as a defiant challenge to the widely held belief that race relations could change gradually.

Banned throughout the South, Mississippi Goddam marked the beginning of a Civil Rights message in her recorded repertoire and live performances. Then there were those who protested the protest tune. She was sent letters that they had actually broken up this recording and sent it back to the recording company, telling them it was in ‘bad taste’.

As her music increasingly challenged Jim Crow Laws, Simone became more active in Civil Rights movements. She performed and spoke at many civil rights meetings and participated in the marches from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights, supported the separatist positions of the Black Nationalist Movement, and became a vocal supporter of Malcolm X and advocated violent revolution rather than Martin Luther King’s non-violent approach. She hoped that African Americans could use armed combat to form a separate state, though she wrote in her autobiography that she and her family regarded all races as equal.

Unfortunately, her activism wasn’t always welcome. Her popularity diminished; venues didn’t invite her to perform, and radio stations didn’t play her songs. But she pressed on, even after the height of the sixties Civil Rights Movement. It was often said of her at the time she was difficult to deal with, some of her mood swing were explained when in 1980 it was discovered she suffered from Bi-Polar syndrome, the rest was anger at a racist society.

Eventually, the USA’s insufficient response to racism and their continued involvement in Vietnam left Simone disillusioned. New York City, Liberia, Barbados, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands were all places that Simone called home, but in 1970, she stopped using the USA as her home, eventually settling in France. She died at her home in Southern France, and her ashes were scattered in several African countries.

Over 60 years later, Nina Simone’s protest songs remain relevant and uncompromising statements in the face of a United States that still has not grappled with its history of racism, segregation and continued racial inequalities.

Listen to Nina Simone

Mississippi Goddam lyrics by Nina Simone

The name of this tune is Mississippi Goddamn
And I mean every word of it
Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
Can’t you see it
Can’t you feel it
It’s all in the air
I can’t stand the pressure much longer
Somebody say a prayer
Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
This is a show tune
But the show hasn’t been written for it, yet
Hound dogs on my trail
School children sitting in jail
Black cat cross my path
I think every day’s gonna be my last
Lord have mercy on this land of mine
We all gonna get it in due time
I don’t belong here
I don’t belong there
I’ve even stopped believing in prayer
Don’t tell me
I tell you
Me and my people just about due
I’ve been there so I know
They keep on saying “Go slow”
But that’s just the trouble
“Do it slow”
Washing the windows
“Do it slow”
Picking the cotton
“Do it slow”
You’re just plain rotten
“Do it slow”
You’re too damn lazy
“Do it slow”
The thinking’s crazy
“Do it slow”
Where am I going?
What am I doing?
I don’t know
I don’t know
Just try to do your very best
Stand up be counted with all the rest
For everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
I bet you thought I was kiddin’ didn’t you
Picket lines
School boycotts
They try to say it’s a communist plot
All I want is equality
For my sister, my brother, my people, and me
Yes, you lied to me all these years
You told me to wash and clean my ears
And talk real fine just like a lady
And you’d stop calling me Sister Sadie
Oh, but this whole country is full of lies
You’re all gonna die and die like flies
I don’t trust you any more
You keep on saying “Go slow”
“Go slow”
But that’s just the trouble
“Do it slow”
“Do it slow”
Mass participation
“Do it slow”
“Do it slow”
Do things gradually
“Do it slow”
But bring more tragedy
“Do it slow”
Why don’t you see it?
Why don’t you feel it?
I don’t know
I don’t know
You don’t have to live next to me
Just give me my equality
Everybody knows about Mississippi
Everybody knows about Alabama
Everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam, that’s it

Read More

Nina Simone and me: An artist and activist revisted CNN Entertainment April 21st 2017

Singer – actor – athlete – political activist

“We realise that our future lies chiefly in our hands. We know that neither institution nor friend can make a race stand unless it has strength in its own foundation”

When it comes to those who stand up for their beliefs, those who stick their heads above the parapet to be counted and in doing so invoke the the full wrath of those in power, here you must count Paul Robeson amongst the great USA Civil Rights activists.

Many know him only as a great American bass baritone concert artist and stage and film actor who became famous for his cultural accomplishments, but in the USA he was also famous for his political activism in a time when this could cost you your life.

In the words of Paul Robeson:

“To be free – to walk the good American earth as equal citizens, to live without fear, to enjoy the fruits of our toil to give our children every opportunity in life – that dream which we have held so long in our hearts is today the destiny that we hold in our hands”.

To his credit Robeson did not just fight for Black Civil Rights he also fought for Civil Rights for the ‘Working Class’ and the poor of all colours. Travelling the world to supporting workers rights.

His concert career reads like a world traveller’s passport: New York, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Germany, Paris, Holland, London, Moscow, and Nairobi.  His travels taught him that racism was not as prevalent in Europe as it was back home. In the United States, he couldn’t enter theatres through the front door or sing without intimidation and protest, but in London he was welcomed with open arms and standing ovations. Robeson believed in the universality of music and that by performing Negro spirituals and other cultures folk songs, he could promote intercultural understanding.  As a result, he became a citizen of the world, singing for peace and equality in twenty-five languages including Chinese, Arabic, Russian and various African languages

Robeson based himself in England from the 1929 to the outbreak of the Second World War; a house in Camden bears a Blue Plaque with his name. In England he said he:

“learned that the essential character of a nation is determined not by the upper classes, but by the common people, and that the common people of all nations are truly brothers in the great family of mankind”.

During this period he was also deeply influenced by the Spanish Civil War against fascism and saw it as a turning point in Human Rights performing in concerts to support the conflict refugees. He joined the Communist Party in 1934 and enjoyed huge popularity in Soviet Russia. He remained a Marxist-Leninist until the day he died.

His support of workers and workers rights was a ‘hallmark of the man’. Performing in docks, shipyards, mines and strike gatherings around the world, including pits in Wales and Scotland taking every opportunity to perform the Civil Rights song ‘Joe Hill’, ironically about White unionist and poet and founding member of  the Industrial Workers of the World Union (The Wobblies) Joel Hägglund executed in 1915.  In 1952, with the encouragement of his friend the great Welsh politician Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan (founder of the NHS), Robeson recorded a number of radio concerts for supporters in Wales.

When performing and supporting the Aborigines cause in Australia he was told that they were ‘backward’, to which he retorted:

“There’s no such thing as a backward human being, there is only a society which says they are backward”.

During his travels he visited the Soviet Union and found them to be a tolerant and friendly nation, he began to protest the growing Cold War hostilities between the United States and the USSR.  He began to question why African-Americans should support a government that did not treat them as equals. 

All this was taking place at a time when dissent was hardly tolerated, Robeson was looked upon as an enemy of the state by his government.  In 1947, he was named by the House Committee on Un-American Activities ‘McCarthyism’, and the State Department denied him a passport until 1958.

Paul Robeson on his socialist politics in 1958:

“I do not believe that a few people should control the wealth of any land.”

Robeson along with his friend W.E.B. Du Bois made serious political misjudgements, most notably on the Hungarian Uprising and Stalinism, but they never faltered from their beliefs in basic human rights and what they believed was the best political system to deliver it, right or wrong.

Looking back on his life as a young man, you can clearly see how this wonderful honourable man developed.

In his formative years Robeson was awarded a four year academic scholarship to Rutgers University in 1915, the third black student in the history of the institution.  Despite the openly racist and violent opposition he faced, Robeson became a twelve letter athlete excelling in baseball, basketball, football, and track.  He was named to the All American Football team on two occasions.  In addition to his athletic talents, Robeson was named a Phi Beta Kappa scholar, belonged to the Cap & Skull Honour Society, and graduated valedictorian of his class in 1919.  

He went on to study law at Columbia in New York and received his degree in 1923.  There he met and married Eslanda Cardozo Goode, who was the first black woman to head a pathology laboratory.   Robeson worked as a law clerk in New York, but once again faced discrimination and soon left the practice because a White secretary refused to take dictation from him.

Before the 1950s, Robeson was one of the world’s most famous entertainers and beloved American heroes – once being named ‘Man of the Year’ by the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. Despite all his accomplishments, Paul Robeson remains virtually ignored in American textbooks and history.

Today we are looking again, he has become revered man once more, not just for his musical and cultural talents but for his long overdue recognition as a political activist, who put body on the line for what he believed to be a just and fair society.

Listen to this interview in 1960

In truth we abandoned him after his ‘McCarthyism trial’ the slander stuck. Robeson disappeared in a sea of mental breakdown, sadness and loneliness. A cruel end for a man who conducted a life full of desire and achievement, passion and conviction: 

“the story of a man who did so much to break down the barriers of a racist society, only to be brought down by the controversies sparked by his own radical politics.”

Listen and Enjoy

Land of My Fathers 3.04min (Wales)

Old Man River 3.18min to Sydney Opera house workers: 

The First Black star tribute 6.44min

The Volga Boatman 2.42min

A homage and party by Stan Mission

Sometime, Jamaican time, on Thursday 18th February, 2021 another talented and original musician passed away: Ewart Beckford, known to most people by his stage name, U-Roy. He was also dubbed “The Originator” for his unique and innovative singing style, and was greatly revered by all who love roots reggae music. That much we know because, within hours of the announcement of his death, international news and social media were awash with tributes to the great man. Fulsome obituaries appeared in the newspapers and on news sites, all basically repeating a similar – and strikingly limited – set of wiki-facts. I read quite a number of these articles before the repetition got to me. Let the dead bury their dead. I decided just to turn on my record player and listen again to the man’s music. Two or three days passed, before a friend contacted me to ask whether I would like to share my thoughts on Daddy U-Roy for this blog; I said yes, and then started to worry that I might simply end up repeating all of the words, “facts” and sentiments which are already out there on the internet in such abundance:

So, this is my attempt to avoid that trap by writing about my own response to U-Roy and his music, from the perspective of my own personal experience.        

Imagine, if you can, a world without the internet. Imagine! There is no Wikipedia, Twitter, BBC Sounds App, YouTube or Spotify;  a world in which, unless you can afford to go to the cinema, the only available moving images are those to be watched – in real time (with no pause or catch-up) – on a thing called television; unless you are privileged, there is only one of these devices per household. People are offered a choice of just three highly curated channels. You watch the afternoon wrestling on ITV with your granny, because, well, because that’s what’s on. It is a very small window indeed, and many people only have black and white pictures to watch through that window. The daily newspapers only carry black and white images. People keep scrapbooks in order to create a personal archive of image and text in hard-copy: the only form of copy there is. There are a couple of radio stations playing music, but, largely, it is an uninterrupted schedule of family-friendly, commercial pop. If you want to listen to any other music, you must buy the record. Apart from very occasional articles in Sounds, Melody Maker, or – by far the best hope in this regard – New Musical Express, everything you know about contemporary music, and the musicians involved, will have to be gleaned from close – sometimes forensic – scrutiny of the record cover and sleeve. Who are these people and what are they trying to tell us? The strange and restricted world which I am asking you to imagine is Britain in the mid-1970s. In that place and time, there was just as much ignorance, mystery, myth and speculation flying about on “the grapevine” as ever there is today on the web; the main difference being that it all moved around much more slowly in the 1970s, when “word of mouth” was pretty much the only way in which news of developments in the cultural underground, any form of outsider art, could be passed on; that is, at walking pace, and one conversation, gig or show at a time.  

My memory is a bit hazy from this distance but I’m fairly sure I first heard U Roy in 1976; two of his songs – “Natty Rebel” and “The Great Psalms” – were included on a Virgin roots reggae sampler entitled “The Front Line”

It was advertised as “An album for the price of a single. 69p.”; this “Front Line At 69” record sported a very stark, monochrome image on its front cover: a strong black fist, in Black Power salute, grasping one of the clusters of spikes on a length of barbed wire, and with blood trickling down the wrist and forearm. There are some glorious tunes from a number of wonderfully talented artists on that album – Johnny Clarke, Keith Hudson and Delroy Wilson to name just three – but it was the U-Roy cuts that really grabbed my attention; he took the music I thought I was beginning to understand and lifted it somewhere else entirely: he extended the form whilst totally respecting its grammar. This man layered an energy over the top of the dubby riddims which was propulsive and compelling; his tone was confident and joyful; his message was serious and meaningful; old, wise but still energetic; his intent was not in doubt; his phrasing and delivery were pitch perfect. Of course, I didn’t think any of this pretentious nonsense at the time; I just went “Wow!”. With all due respect to the excellent Dave and Ansell Collins, this was a dubby-jazz-steppahs “Double Barrel” with a stoned-Rastaman-James Brown in the vocal driving seat encouraging us towards righteous ways. Squared! Cubed!! I knew from someone, or had picked up in NME somewhere, that this man was a “legend” – unbeknownst to me at the time, he must only have been about 30 years old, and already legendary to those in the know – but all I had to go on was the music itself. 

Just the music until, that is, I bought myself a copy of the “Dread In A Babylon” LP.

This sleeve was very different from the sampler cover; on it, front and back, a man was photographed squatting in a ghetto yard behind a massive ganja pipe, wreathed in clouds of smoke and looking highly contemplative, serious and suspicious of the camera. The man whom I assumed to be U-Roy – but couldn’t be sure, it didn’t say – looked old and wild. To a polite boy from the uniformly grey, grey Kingston Surrey, the red, green, gold, and all colours in between, of back-a-yard in Kingston Jamaica looked highly exotic and exciting.

That Virgin sampler wasn’t my first introduction to reggae music. Since 1970 or 71, I had in my early teenage record collection an album of covers by uncredited session musicians of a dozen mainstream-UK-pop-chart-scraping hits such as Israelites, Long Shot Kick The Bucket, My Boy Lollipop, and The Liquidator. I associated reggae, bluebeat and ska in the late 60s and early 70s with skinhead culture, and, as a nice boy from Surrey who spent many Saturday afternoons quivering on the terraces under The Shed at Stamford Bridge, I was frightened of skins, but I loved the music and played that LP endlessly. The album was called “The Wonderful World Of Reggae” (“Twelve Great Tracks for only 14/6”) on the economy-range Music For Pleasure label. On the front cover, two cartoon figures dance in bright clothing; both are wearing flared trousers and kipper ties; both have pink skin and bouffant, almost afro, hairdo’s; one of the figures sports an improbable moustache. On the back cover, there are a couple of paragraphs, written by someone called Barry Kirsch, which attempt to introduce this new and emerging musical phenomenon known as “reggae” (often, in those days, rendered phonetically as “reggay”). “Soul is dead”, “soul is finished”, Barry starts off absurdly. The remaining two or three hundred words which follow this frankly silly pronouncement are barely less inane. In this introduction to the new music from Jamaica, Jamaica itself does not warrant a mention!  

1976, the year in which “The Front Line” was released was a musical and cultural Year Zero in the UK, with single releases by The Damned (“New Rose”) and The Sex Pistols (“Anarchy In The UK”) heralding the arrival of a whole new ethic: DIY, angry, proudly untutored. Every teenager knew straight away that something big was brewing. Throughout 1977 and ’78, at almost every punk gig I attended, the tunes playing over the house PA between bands were roots reggae and dub. Things connected up in those brief years of punky-reggae-party; things started to make sense; music and politics started to mingle to powerful and liberating effect. Barriers came down and the curators of cultural taste were routed, at least for a time.

I guess that Mr U-Roy just kept on keeping on during this period, recording sides for King Tubby and many others, and making regular appearances for various sound systems at the dancehall . I didn’t enquire. There was really no way to enquire. I now know that he left JA and went to live in Santa Ana, Orange County, California for a spell of about ten years before returning to his homeland, but I believe that that was in the 80s. Ewart was born in Jones Town, which borders Trench Town and Denham Town in the ghetto-slums of Kingston, in the parish of Saint Andrew; it’s a place where, as Bunny Wailer describes it, “Town just lead straight into Town”. U-Roy stayed close to his impoverished roots. For all I knew over the intervening decades, he might have been shot like so many other prominent figures in the Jamaican music business. I didn’t enquire. He was legendary, mythical, as old as the hills. What use is biographical detail in the case of a legend, living or otherwise? And where would you find it anyway?

Now we are told that U-Roy died aged 78, and I realise that he was only 15 years my senior. They say that you should never meet your heroes but in the last few days I have  searched out, for the first time, various extended interviews with U-Roy, recorded in his later years. They reveal a remarkable man: relaxed, affable, honest, humble, forthright, tough, positive, joyful, grounded and grateful to Almighty Jah for all his blessings. There is no false modesty in his assessment of his own achievements and legacy – he is clearly rightfully proud of what he has done and the global recognition which his work has earned him – but he displays at the same time an extraordinary lack of ego for someone held in such high esteem in their chosen field, let alone anyone in music, show business or the performing arts generally. 

U-Roy readily acknowledged his early influences, primarily Louis Jordan, Fats Domino, and Louis Prima (“He was a white man but …”) ; often his own vocal inflections, phrasing and cadences could be described as Sinatra-esque; in other words, his style had “flow”. Flow like never before – truly – and very seldom since. Toasting, DJing, MCing, sing-jaying, rap … go back to the root; go back to the base of the trunk, and there stands the Mighty U-Roy. On record. Timeless. One Love because love is lovely and war is very ugly. Blessings. On the hour every half hour.

The U-Roy ‘Natty Dread Party‘ & radio show:

Have a Good Evening, Listen On U Roy Playlist

Billy Waters b.1778 & Joseph ‘Black Joe’ Johnson b.1796

There are many examples of Black men who served in the British army and the Royal Navy as musicians, drummers and trumpeters. Less well known are those who were professional or amateur musicians. Black artists from a variety of social backgrounds were performing in Britain from the 16th century. Billy Waters and Joseph Johnson are two such men.

Post by Rob Burns

Billy Waters

Was an ex navy Black man who busked in London in the nineteenth century by singing, playing the violin and entertaining theatre goers with his “peculiar antics”. Known as the ‘King of the Beggars’, he was a well known figure in early nineteenth-century popular culture.

Waters was an African American ex-sailor, who lost a leg serving on the ship ‘Ganymede’ and so turned to busking in London to supplement his meagre pension. Waters’ pitch was outside the Adelphi theatre on the Strand. He adopted a distinctive costume of ‘Cocked hat adorned with various coloured feathers, a sailor’s jacket & canvas trousers and of course his wooden leg’ which together with his fiddle-playing, his dancing, and his trademark song ‘Kitty Will You Marry Me’, made him a well-known figure on London’s streets.

Courtesy of Royal Museums Greenwich painted by David Wilkie c1815
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Michael Graham-Stewart Slavery Collection. Acquired with the assistance of the Heritage Lottery Fund

Billy Waters (c.1778–1823) was born in America during the War of Independence. He was a seaman in the Royal Navy and lost his leg as a result of falling from the topsail yard of the ‘Ganymede’ in 1812. Unable to serve at sea, he became a famous London street entertainer and was often to be seen busking with his fiddle to support his family. Waters featured in Pierce Egan’s ‘Life in London’ (1820–21) and was one of the characters illustrated by George Cruikshank. Indeed, Waters appeared in several Cruikshank cartoons, including ‘The New Union Club’ (NMM, ZBA2498). Waters ended his days in St Giles’s Workhouse, having fallen ill and been forced to pawn his fiddle. He was elected ‘king of the beggars’ shortly before his death. While the attribution to Sir David Wilkie is not certain, it is entirely possible that Waters was painted by him most likely in London.

Royal Museums Greenwich

Billy’s greatest fame came, however, after he was immortalised in W. T. Moncrieff’s hit 1821 stage version of ‘Life in London’ (Tom And Jerry). Inside the Adelphi, Mr Paolo played Billy Waters on stage in a scene based on his street performance, illustration and popular culture all intersected.

However he departed this world very poor and prior to his death sold his beloved fiddle to a pawnbroker along with his wooden leg. He died 10 days after being admitted into St Giles workhouse with a lingering condition, ironically a short time before his demise he was elected ‘King of a party of Beggars’. He did his very best as a disabled man but left his wife and two children destitute.

Joseph ‘Black Joe’ Johnson

Was an ex sailor in the Royal Navy and busker extraordinaire a beggar and street performer, also known as ‘Black Joe’, is of unknown parentage and origin. He had served as a seaman until he was forced to retire because of ‘wounds rendering him incapable of doing further duty on the ocean’. Not being entitled to relief payments ‘having been employed in the merchants’ service only’.

Working as a sailor was one of many, primarily lower-class occupations available to Black Britons. Joseph Johnson is notably excluded from the military and thus, despite obvious injuries, does not receive compensation from Greenwich.

To survive, Johnson turned to busking. He was able to draw particular attention to himself on account of his novel head attire – he built and wore a model of the seafaring military vessel Nelson on his cap.

London had for centuries been home to distinct numbers of Black people, and the little that is known of ‘Black Joe’ actually reveals much about some of the ways in which the free Black presence in the capital was constituted two centuries ago.

By building a model of the Nelson, Johnson was not only telling an instantly recognisable and understandable story about his own biography (having been a seaman), he was also utilising a representation of what was one of the most recognisable and celebrated military sea craft of its day. Johnson’s choice of hat was certainly inspired by his time as a sailor, and yet the juxtaposition of a black man and large ship during a time of heated debate surrounding slavery also resonates on other levels.

Courtesy of Sound and History article VAGABONDIANA

At the time of this sketch, “taken from life,” the slave trade had (ostensibly) been abolished, but slavery itself was still rampant, a fact that may or may not have been lost on the women taking sugar in their tea as Johnson theatrically “sailed” passed.

‘Black Joe’ is taken to represent both the black urban poor and the particularly creative or ingenious beggar.

NOTE: He is one of only two characters in the book Vagabondiana’ identified by a African British signifier. The other is Charles M’Gee:

The following plate presents the portrait of another black man of great notoriety, Charles M’Gee, a native of Ribon, in Jamaica, born in 1744, and whose father died at the great age of 108. This singular man usually stands at the Obelisk, at the foot of Ludgate-Hill. He has lost an eye, and his woolly hair, which is almost white, is tied up behind in a tail, with a large tuft at the end, horizontally resting upon the cape of his coat. Charles is supposed to be worth money. His stand is certainly above all others the most popular, many thousands of persons crossing it in the course of a day. He has of late on the working-days sported a smart coat, presented to him by a city pastry-cook. On a Sunday he is a constant attendant at Rowland Hill’s meeting-house, and on that occasion his apparel is appropriately varied.

Vagabondania 1817
Charles M’Gee illustration courtesy of Sound and History article VAGABONDIANA

Further reading

Billy Waters – Wikipedia

Joseph Johnson – IB Taurus Blog

W. T. Moncrieff and the play ‘Life in London’ (Tom And Jerry) in Wikipedia

Supremes founding member dies aged 76

For me Mary Wilson was the best singer in The Supremes (originally The Primettes) the band she founded with Diana Ross and Florence Ballard. It is unfortunate that she was sidelined and turned into a backing singer because of Ross’s relationship with Berry Gordy. But the real soul devotee’s understood a real soul/R&B singer when they heard one and she went on from 1977 to forge a solo career that gained cult status. Her leaving signalled the end of the Supremes, she famously said “I’m not friends with Diana Ross” in a Daily Telegraph interview in 2019.

Mary also had a social conscience she was an activist, fighting to pass Truth in Music Advertising bills and donating to various charities. The news of her death is even more shocking when you consider this she released this video 2 days before she died:

Today’s Guardian tribute: Mary Wilson, co-founder of the Supremes, dies aged 76

By Rob Burns

Mary Wilson, the co-founder of the Motown band the Supremes, has died age 76. Wilson’s publicist said she died suddenly at her Las Vegas home. No cause of death was given.

The Motown founder, Berry Gordy, said he was:

“extremely shocked and saddened to hear of the passing of a major member of the Motown family.

“The Supremes were always known as the ‘sweethearts of Motown’.’ Mary, along with Diana Ross and Florence Ballard, came to Motown in the early 1960s. After an unprecedented string of No 1 hits, television and nightclub bookings, they opened doors for themselves, the other Motown acts, and many, many others.”

Musicians including Questlove and Kiss’s Paul Stanley paid tribute to Wilson. PaulStanley tweeted:

“I was just on a Zoom call with her Wednesday for about an hour and never could have imagined this. So full of life and great stories. Absolutely shocked. Rest in Supreme peace, Mary.”

Wilson was born in Greenville, Mississippi, on 6 March 1944. Her family moved to Chicago and later Detroit. At primary school in Detroit, Wilson met Florence Ballard while singing in a school talent show.

In 1958, Ballard recruited Wilson and Diana Ross to form the Primettes. The group performed covers at local events and made a name for themselves locally. Aspiring to sign to Motown, Ross asked her former neighbour, Smokey Robinson, to get them an audition with Gordy.

Undeterred by Gordy deeming them too young to sign, the trio made themselves a regular presence around his Hitsville USA studio until he allowed them to make guest appearances on records by other artists.

“It really was like walking into a Disneyland,” Wilson told the Observer in 2019 of the Motown studio. “All these creative people.”

In January 1961, Gordy signed the group under the proviso that they change their name. At first they failed to make an impression on the charts but in 1964 their version of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s Where Did Our Love Go topped the US charts and reached No 3 in the UK.

It was the beginning of an international chart streak that included Baby Love, Stop! In the Name of Love and You Can’t Hurry Love. The trio also became known for their glamorous attire, and in 1966, their album Supremes A’ Go-Go became the first record by an all-woman group to top the US album charts, knocking the Beatles’ Revolver off the No 1 spot.

The group broke down by the end of the decade as Gordy primed Ross for solo success and Ballard experienced depression and alcoholism: she died of a heart attack in 1976.

“What hurts me is that some people say: ‘One of the Supremes was an alcoholic.’ Flo drank to cover the pain,” Wilson told the Observer, referring to the sexual abuse that Ballard suffered as a child. “She only become an alcoholic because of that.

Wilson was the only consistent member of the group until their demise in 1977. After a legal battle with Motown, Wilson resigned with the label as a solo artist, to middling success. She found herself on top again in 1986 when her memoir, Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme, broke sales records. She also enjoyed success in musical theatre. Protracted business negotiations left Wilson out of a Supremes reunion planned for 2000, which was ultimately cancelled owing to low sales.

Wilson later became an inspirational speaker, an advocate for musicians’ rights, creator of a touring exhibition of the Supremes’ famous gowns, and in 2019 appeared on US series Dancing with the Stars.

She had been planning to release solo material, including her unreleased 1970s album Red Hot recorded with producer Gus Dudgeon. In a video uploaded to YouTube two days before her death, she expressed her wish that some of her recordings would be released by her birthday on 6th March.

Wilson married Pedro Ferrer in 1974. They were divorced in 1981. They had three children: their youngest, Rafael, died in a car accident in 1994, in which Wilson was injured.

“I think you’re lucky if you don’t get that kind of loss in your life,” she told the Observer. “You can lose a job, you can lose a love, but the loss of a child, and the loss of a dear friend, can be very detrimental. It helped me grow up and I don’t mean in a good way. It made me see that life can be very cruel to someone you love.”

She was also adoptive mother to her cousin, Willie.

Gordy said he was:

“always proud of Mary. She was quite a star in her own right and over the years continued to work hard to boost the legacy of the Supremes. Mary Wilson was extremely special to me. She was a trailblazer, a diva and will be deeply missed.”

Read more

Truth in Music Advertising – Wikipedia

Mary Wilson of the Supremes: ‘Motown was like walking into Disneyland’ – Barbara Ellen interview in the Observer on 29th September 2019

Mary Wilson: the Supremes’ tenacious star who refused to accept defeat by Alexis Petridis Guardian 9th February 2021

Mary Wilson Website

Mary Wilson speaks with such empathy about her fellow Supreme, Flo Ballard.

Music Hall star and choreographer

She was in a group called the “Octoroons” in America before she moved to Britain in 1901. She was said to be licensed by the US government to bring child performers to Britain. Some were known to exploit orphans in this way but Davis was noted for her role as their guardian. She has been said to be the first Black woman to make a recording. On 24th January 1902 she made a recording of The Honeysuckle and the Bee under the name of ‘Belle Davis and her Piccaninnies’. They were back the following month to record The Rainbow Coon.

Taken from the East End Women’s Museum blog below:

Belle Davis, Music Hall Star and Choreographer

In Victorian and Edwardian England a number of African-American singers and performers achieved success and celebrity. Some, like Elizabeth Greenfield, Marie Selika Williams, and Sissieretta Jones performed at prestigious venues for aristocratic audiences (including the Queen), while others including Amy Height performed at music halls and theatres up and down the country for a more mixed audience.

One of these music hall stars was singer Belle Davis. I first encountered her when I was researching the story of dancer Josie Woods, because it was Davis that recruited Josie and her brother as teenagers in Canning Town and trained them as professional dancers, eventually taking them to Paris to perform in La Revue Nègre which had previously made Josephine Baker a star.

I tried to find out a little more about her. While details about Davis’ life are scant, it’s likely that she was born in New Orleans between June 1873 and September 1874, and first visited Europe in 1901 aged 27. In June 1904 Belle Davis married saxophonist and band leader Troy Floyd, and at some point later she married comedian Eddie Whaley. 

According to drummer Gordon Stretton, Davis:

“was a mezzo-soprano; tall black girl, native from New Orleans, very beautiful…” 

Some accounts mention that she had a light complexion, and apparently booking agents would sometimes try and persuade her to “darken down”, presumably to fit the stereotype of an ‘exotic’ African-American singer.

In her act Davis was accompanied by two young black boys who danced and sang, described as ‘piccaninnies’ in their promotional literature, revealing the appetite for racist caricatures among white audiences at the time. Among the first of these boys were Sneeze Williams, age 9, and Sonny Jones, age 7, both of whom went on to have careers as jazz musicians in 1920s Europe. It was not uncommon for orphans to be targeted for these showbusiness roles and then exploited, but according to trumpeter Arthur Briggs, who met Belle Davis in Europe she was different. 

Davis’ act was very popular and she became an international star. She toured Europe until at least December 1917, appearing on stage in Britain many times before and during the First World War. She appeared at several East End theatres and music halls including Hackney Empire, Stratford East, East Ham Palace and the Mile End Paragon on numerous occasions.

Less is known about Davis’ movements after the War. Between about 1925 and 1929 she became choreographer at the prestigious Casino de Paris, in Paris and was responsible for the annual revues. It’s at this point in her career that she recruited Josie Wood as a young dancer, so we know that in 1926 she was in Canning Town, looking for star potential among the local youngsters. She found it in Josie. 

Belle Davis was last heard of in Paris in 1929 and may have died there. She is one of countless women who was well known in her lifetime, even a celebrity, but have all but vanished from history.