by Paul Oliver
A splendid anachronism, Sippie Wallace; a singular survivor of a long past blues tradition. There was a time, in the Forties, when almost the only form of blues which had any recognition was that called ‘classic blues’. The term itself is vague enough and does not carry in it any specific form, or style, or means of expression.
But though it lacks a real definition the classic blues has meant for collectors and jazz enthusiasts the singing of the blues artists who worked with the jazz bands of the 1920s. There were few enthusiasts of the blues in the early years of the traditional jazz ‘revival’ and, in consequence, the blues singers who had associations with jazz were those whose names appeared in the articles and the occasional books which mileposted the developing interest in this form of music. When the ‘trad’ boom was over and the Dixieland bands and the New Orleans bands had fought out their battles of authenticity and purity to meet at last over glasses of warm beer to rue the passing of a fad, attention to the classic blues went too.
In the past few years a rise in interest in the blues has echoed in some respects the traditional jazz phase, sustaining a large number of imitative musicians, developing a market for the issue and reissue of the music of the past, and promoting the rediscovery of veteran musicians.
In all this activity in the blues field there has been little attention to the work of the classic singers. Sadly their link with jazz which had inspired interest in the past is now contributory to the present disregard. Once again, the arguments over authenticity have produced artificial barriers, have classified, often meaninglessly, the categories into which musicians and singers conveniently fall and have imposed a highly artificial form of arbitrary evaluation. And the arguments have weighed heavily against the classic blues singers when indeed, they enter the discussion at all.
The appearance of Sippie Wallace at the Folk Blues Festival concerts in 1966 must be counted from any point of view, a conspicuous success. Her single appearance has caused critics to reconsider their opinions, some writers to admit grudgingly that there may after all, be some value in the work of singers of her type and generation. As the reviews and the spontaneous acclamation of the audiences revealed, Sippie Wallace’s majestic singing was both a personal triumph and a smashing blow against those who found the classic singer inadmissable to the blues pantheon.
To the extent that the term has any meaning, Sippie Wallace is a classic blues singer. But the term is elastic enough to include at one pole the work of artists of the stature of Bessie Smith and Gertrude Ma Rainey, and at the other the entertainment of Rosa Henderson and Viola McCoy. While the former showed in their every phrase the influence of the blues, the latter singers were vaudeville entertainers whose links were as much with white show business as they were with the Negro tradition of song. No derogatory implications are intended; only some indication of the looseness ot the terminology. Nearly all these singers were women and it is probably a reflection of the recording patterns of the day that while there were few rural women singers recorded in the Twenties the classic singers were almost exclusively female. Those who showed the greatest association with the blues tradition inevitably appeal today to a greater extent than do those whose singing was a part of the vaudeville entertainment of the early years of the century, and for this reason Lillian Glinn, Cleo Gibson or Clara Smith are among the few that are remembered. Standing pre-eminently in their company is Sippie Wallace.
Born early in the century in Houston, Texas, Beulah Thomas came from a musical family which included her talented composer brother George Thomas and the ill-fated child prodigy Hersal Thomas who was one of the finest of early recording blues pianists. A childhood lisp gave Beulah the nickname of ‘Sippie’ and she was known as this when she began as a child to sing before the congregations in Houston churches. This background in singing gave her a valuable training before large audiences which stood her in good stead in later years. Her brother George left Houston to become partner to the New Orleans pianist Clarence Williams. Beulah stayed at home, but when eventually George arrived in Chicago he sent for his young sister to join him. In the North she married a gambler by the name of Matt Wallace and it was as Sippie Wallace that her name first appeared on an Okeh record a matter of months after Bessie Smith’s earliest recordings. The song was her own composition ‘Up the Country’ and it contained a recitative about her family which fired the imagination of other singers. Sippie’s distinctive phrasing and use of imagery was copied by many other singers and following the remarkable success of ‘Up the Country’ and its backing, ‘Shorty George Blues’, she had a succession of nearly a score of hit records. People lined up in dozens outside the record shops to get her latest disc and her beautiful features, dimpled cheeks and soft, winning smile was to be seen in Okeh advertisements and throwaway sheets in the Negro newspapers and the music stores across America.
On her earliest records Sippie was accompanied by Clarence Williams or Eddie Hey-wood. Heywood played for her on ‘Up the Country’, but, forty-three years later she played the piano herself, a little timidly perhaps but revealing unmistakably the characteristics of the Texas piano tradition. The Texas tradition coloured the content of her songs too: ‘Shorty George’ was adapted from a folk blues current in the State when she was a girl. On this recent version she is accompanied by Roosevelt Sykes, himself a veteran from the recording era of the Twen-ties. His sensitive support on ‘Bedroom Blues’ or ‘Trouble Everywhere I Go’ is entirely in keeping with the character of the men who supported the classic singers four decades ago. Those accustomed to Roosevelt Sykes’ ebullient, stomping piano playing may well be surprised by these gentle and contemplative piano accompaniments.
Hersal Thomas was Sippie Wallace’s favourite accompanist in her great years. His premature death from poisoning profoundly affected her, for she regarded him as her own son. It was an irreparable loss to the piano blues as the memories and testimony of such singers as Jimmy Yancey and Albert Ammons have been witness. Every pianist tried to play his ‘Rocks’ and ‘Fives’, and learned his figures from his records. One was Little Brother Montgomery from Louisiana whose support to Sippie on ‘Special Delivery Blues’, ‘I’m a Mighty Tight Woman’ or ‘Murder’s Gonna Be My Crime’, evoke the shade of the great Hersal. But it takes an artist of stature to inspire his accompanists and credit for this session of recreations of the Twenties must go, above all, to Sippie herself. Her moaned phrases, her long extended notes, her subtle inflexions and shadings which charge her words with meaning are the hallmark of consummate artistry.
Those who were privileged to hear her in person will never forget Sippie Wallace’s utter disdain of such contrivances as the microphone as she stood yards back from the instrument and soared into her blues. Without mannerism, scarcely without gesture, without histrionics or mugging or any aid other than her own great talent she dominated her audiences and held them enrapt in her presence. Such an ability revealed the measure of a true professional but one whose involvement was totally within the blues. Or so it has become again, for Sippie Wallace is still a devoted member of the church in which she has been working for the past quarter of a century. The Depression brought the virtual end to her recording career and though, many years later, she had a brief comeback in the company of Albert Ammons she was increasingly drawn to the church in Detroit where she had made her home. The death of her closest relatives and of her husband convinced her that she should give up blues singing. She became not only a devout church member but an active leader of the choir and teacher of church singers. She accompanied them herself on the piano and played in church, so that her contact with singing and playing was never broken. A chain of circumstances including the encouragement of her fellow-Texan, Victoria Spivey, has brought her back briefly to the blues but she has wisely decided against an attempted autumnal comeback. These recordings are perhaps her last blues performances, but they are a uniquely valuable document of a great age made by one of its most outstanding exponents. They range from the entertaining, archly amusing stage songs of the vaudeville theatre, ‘You Got to Know How’ or ‘Women Be Wise’ to the moving and timeless ‘Lonesome Hours Blues’.
Listening to them they will evoke for some the memory of a plump, bespectacled, regal and still beautiful woman whose great voice filled the Albert Hall and thrilled an audience whose grandmothers were of her generation; for all who hear them they must signify a last link with the classic blues, without compare at this time.
Almost alone they give us a glimpse of a blues tradition that we missed.
Notes to Storyville SLP 198, 1967
Woman Be Wise (3:52)
Trouble Everywhere I Roam (2:40)
Lonesome Hours Blues (2:58)
Special Delivery Blues (3:14)
Murder Gonna Be My Crime (3:46)
Caldonia Blues (2:52)
Gambler’s Dream (2:18)
You Got To Know How (3:25)
Shorty George Blues (3:25)
Bedroom Blues (2:42)
I’m A Mighty Tight Woman (2:53)
Up The Country Blues (3:08)
Liner Notes: Paul Oliver
Piano: Little Brother Montgomery / Roosevelt Sykes
Piano, Vocals: Sippie Wallace
Supervised By: Karl Emil Knudsen
Written-By: Sippie Wallace
Recorded in Copenhagen on October 23, 1966.