Black and bluegrass the perfect shades for Love
In the mid-’90s, Laura Love was handed a stack of vinyl LPs by Jo Miller, the singer of the bluegrass-derived band Ranch Romance. “She said, ‘You’ve got such a great voice for bluegrass,'” recalled Love. “She played them for me and said, ‘OK, now you do that.'”The oddity underlying that exchange is Love’s racial heritage. Despite her light skin, Love is black; as she has since learned, her great-grandparents on her father’s side were slaves. So though Love had already proved herself a fine singer – by the mid-’90s, she had been a full-time performer for several years – bluegrass didn’t figure to be a natural component of her musical makeup.Until she started singing it.”It felt like singing Negro spirituals with my mom as a kid. It was that same kind of familiar,” said Love, who leads her trio – with fiddler Barbara Lamb and banjoist Danny Barnes – to a set at the Carbondale Mountain Fair on Sunday, July 29. “I couldn’t get enough of it.”For her next recording, Love teamed with Miller to make 1995’s “Jo Miller and Laura Love Sing Bluegrass and Old Time Music,” featuring versions of songs by Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs and other bluegrass musicians set to the traditional backing of fiddle, mandolin and acoustic guitar. Since then, Love’s music has been more of a mixed bag, a style she has occasionally called “Afro-Celtic.” She has employed fiddles and steel guitars, congas and her own instrument, the electric bass. Her CDs – including several made for the major label, Mercury – have sandwiched black spirituals (“Amazing Grace”), American folk (“Shenandoah”) and contemporary covers (Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” and Laura Nyro’s “Stoned Soul Picnic”) inside her original material, which gives roots music a twist of the funk.Love’s latest CD, released last month, is “NeGrass.” It is the closest she has come in over a decade to exploring her purer bluegrass side, with almost all acoustic backing, and contributions from Tim O’Brien, banjoist Scott Vestal and Rob Ickes on resonator guitar. The material, however – mostly originals, plus traditional tunes “The Cuckoo” and “Shady Grove” – explores Love’s origins, which are anything but pure bluegrass.
Not long ago, Love learned the story of her paternal grandmother, Mexie Love, who had been born in 1880 and lived to be 103 – at the time, the oldest resident of Nebraska. Love uncovered the tidbit that Mexie had been the first of the Loves to be born into freedom – meaning that Love’s great-grandmother had been a slave.”It hit me like a brick to think I had great-grandparents who were slaves. That’s so close,” said Love by phone from her home in Seattle.At the close of the slavery years, the Love family resided in Texas, where freedom was slow to come. Word of the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t reach Texas until 1865, two years after it was issued. Seems that every messenger attempting to deliver President Lincoln’s order freeing the slaves turned up dead. “They eventually had to go house to house to tell the slaves they were free,” said Love. The Love family, like most of those freed, headed north; unlike most, they settled in Nebraska.Another distinguishing characteristic of the Love family was its relatively light skin. Color, in this respect, went beyond the skin. Light-skinned Negroes were favored by slave owners; even other blacks looked up to the less-black blacks. Over generations, the lighter-skinned looked for similarly complexioned people as mates, to preserve the favored skin tone.”It was the house nigger-field nigger thing. There was a tacit collusion among the slave owners to give these people the better jobs,” said the 47-year-old Love. “It was no accident that my family had remained light-skinned blacks. It was a big thing to retain that light skin.”Wini Winston, Love’s mother, chose a light-skinned man, Preston Love, to father her children. Of course, this is not the version of the story that was handed down; Laura and her sister, Lisa, were told that their mother had married Preston Love, a talented saxophonist who died in a car accident.Part of the official family line was true. Preston Love was a skilled musician, had played in Count Basie’s band. But he hadn’t been killed at all, a fact Laura and Lisa learned one day in 1976, when they picked up the entertainment section of the newspaper to check the movie listings. Instead of going to the cinema that night, they went to the Zoo Bar, a Lincoln, Neb., club that was featuring Preston Love on its stage.”Sure enough, there was a guy up onstage who looked a lot like me,” said Love.
As the only black student in her Nebraska junior high, Love was an outcast at worst, a nonentity at best. But Preston Love, and Wini Winston, who had been a jazz singer, apparently had passed along not only their light skin to Laura – Lisa got a darker tone – but their musical abilities. At a seventh-grade talent show, Laura sang Carly Simon’s “Anticipation,” and any race issues came to an end.”Oh my Lord, everything just turned around,” said Love. “I became the instant ‘thang,’ never got beat up once. I coasted through. It was like: ‘Don’t kill her, she can sing.'”Love’s meeting with her father was far more the beginning of her musical career than the end of family quandary. That night at the Zoo Bar, Preston, whom Laura found to be “nice and jovial,” brought his newfound daughter onstage to sing the Ohio Players’ “Fire” and Johnny Mathis’ “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late.” A man who saw the performance showed up at her school soon thereafter and gave Love her first real gig – for the residents of the Nebraska State Penitentiary. Her pay was $50. “I could not believe it was possible to get paid to do something I did all the time – and loved to do,” she said. Love played weddings and bar gigs before moving to the Pacific Northwest in 1980 to pursue a life of pot-farming by day, and singing by night. That existence “kind of fell through a little bit,” is how Love puts it. Another way to say it is she got busted by a SWAT team, bringing her farming career to an end. (She documented her side of the story – “I paid my taxes and worked hard as anyone should / I grew … I grew” – in “Sativa,” from the 2000 CD, “Fourteen Days.”) Love turned to singing full time.The new album, “NeGrass,” is musically stripped down. It also strips Love down to her essentials. (The album was released on Love’s own Octoroon Biography label; octoroon describes a person who has one black great-grandparent.) The album has bluegrass backing, but has Love in the voice of a black spiritual singer. The lyrics, rooted in the language of black field hollers, follow a former slave making her way upward toward freedom. The album ends with “He Is My Rock,” where the heroine finds salvation in “the righteous path.”
“I’m a black woman singing Negro spirituals – and bluegrass,” said the lighthearted Love, who documented her story – including some chilling episodes with her schizophrenic mother – in the 2004 memoir, “You Ain’t Got No Easter Clothes.” “Those two kinds of music are the only two I never get saturated with. On ‘Negress,” I wedded the two, decided they could live together on the same record.”I don’t fit cleanly into a cultural heritage, so I had to make up my own: African-Americana.” Femi Kuti, also the product of a musician father, knows his heritage well. Kuti followed his father Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the legendary pioneer of the Nigerian style Afrobeat, into music. And the younger Kuti – who makes his local debut Monday, July 30, at Belly Up – understood that with the music came the obligation to deliver a message. On this year’s two-CD set “The Definitive Collection,” Femi shouts down corruption and the spread of AIDS, and celebrates the power of the common people in a cover of his father’s “Water No Get Enemy.””It is the essence of what Afrobeat is about,” Kuti, in an e-mail exchange, said of addressing social issues in his music. “My father had been influenced by all the political and social movements in England and America. He was introduced to the teaching of Malcolm X. There was lots of discussion and debating all over the world, and it made him think about his own country and our leaders at the time in Nigeria. He started thinking he could make a difference through his music, and started being open about these injustices.”
Femi understands that the best way to get across some serious words is to aim them at the feet. Kuti’s music is made for movement. In his “Blackman Know Yourself,” Kuti first urges the listener to grab a partner and dance, then launches into lyrics about using African pride to move beyond colonialism. It’s a trick he learned from his father.”He adored music and wanted to put across a message as well as to have fun – which I think he successfully did,” said Kuti. “Afrobeat is such an infectious style of music that you can’t not help dance to.”Femi has come up with tricks even his father didn’t have. He has incorporated hip-hop into his sound. Guests on “The Definitive Collection” include American rappers Mos Def and Common. But even in this, looking to America for fresh sounds, he got a tip from his dad.”Afrobeat is a mixture of jazz, blues, African beats, Yoruba and funk,” wrote Kuti. “My father loved jazz musicians such as Dizzie Gillespie and Miles Davis. I think even more so [now], music styles and cultures are merging all the time.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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