Sunday, August 26, 2012

Ain't Nobody's Business...Not Exactly Bessie!

While some credit the song to Billie Holiday, "Ain't Nobody's Business" was apparently written by Bessie Smith's accompanist, pianist, Porter Grainger and Everett Robbins.  I've loved this classic blues song from the 20s for many years. I've listened to the lyrics repeatedly, as I have with many Bessie Smith songs.  So why is it that today, while I was washing dishes (using barkeeper's friend on stainless pots actually...which I really hate doing), that I heard something I'd overlooked on all prior listens? Here's what Bessie sings on Queen of the Blues Volume 1 (as transcribed by me so probably inaccurately transcribed):

There ain't nothing I can do
Or nothing I can say
That's folks don't criticize me

But I'm going to do just as I want to anyway
And don't care if they all despise me
If I should take a notion to jump in to the ocean t'ain't nobody's business if I

If I go to church on Sunday
Then just shimmy down on Monday
t'ain't nobody's business if I do, if I do

If my friend ain't got no money and I say take all mine honey
t'ain't nobody's business if I do, if I do

If I give him my last nickel and he leaves me in a pickle
t'ain't nobody's business if I do, if I do

If I'd rather my man would hit me than to jump right up and quit me
t'ain't nobody's business if I do, if I do

I swear I won't call no copper if I'm beat up by my papa
t'ain't nobody's business if I do, if I do

[Incidentally, she seems to be saying "in" and then "to" the ocean, rather than "into" and I'm not sure I'm right about "despise" but I couldn't figure out what else it could be -- "defile"?]

This song has been recorded and performed by so many great artists (some versions predate Bessie's) and, in various instances, the lyrics changed.  In some instance, the lyric alterations resulted in omitting references to domestic violence.

One of the things I've always loved about Bessie is the personality that shines through in her vocals; a personality which paints her as a force to be reckoned with.  For instance, on Gimme a Pigfoot (which I love), she ends up somewhere between a growl and a roar.  On first hearing, it wouldn't be wrong to actually jump when she roars about the paino player bringing her down.  Vulnerable on many of her songs, sure, but welcoming abuse (in a song written by men from a woman's perspective)?

Maybe I've been thinking more about this since hearing Terry Gross' fabulous interview with Carole King and spending a bunch of time with my family listening to Tapestry (which I'm embarrassed to say I didn't own until this year) and Carole King's Legendary Demos disc (which may be better than Tapestry and is certainly more impressive a display of raw talent).  In the interview, Terry asks her about one of the seemingly innumerable hits she wrote for other artists, "He Hit Me & It Felt Like a Kiss," which she penned with her former husband, Gerry Goffin (he was the lyricist and she wrote the music).  Here are the remarkably troubling lyrics, but before I share them, what is so noteworthy is that in King's autobiography (which I've not read) she revealed that she was in a physically abusive relationship (years after writing that song and the songs comprising Tapestry and not with Goffin).  During the Terry Gross interview on Fresh Air, she said that she really regrets having had a part in writing that song, especially as a woman who later was herself physically abused.  Note the wikipedia entry for this song provides: "Goffin and King wrote the song after discovering that singer Little Eva was being regularly beaten by her boyfriend.[1] When they inquired why she tolerated such treatment, Eva replied, with complete sincerity, that her boyfriend's actions were motivated by his love for her.[1]"

"He hit me And it felt like a kiss. He hit me But it didn't hurt me. He couldn't stand to hear me say That I'd been with someone new, And when I told him I had been untrue He hit me And it felt like a kiss. He hit me And I knew he loved me. If he didn't care for me I could have never made him mad But he hit me, And I was glad. (instrumental break) Yes, he hit me And it felt like a kiss. He hit me And I knew I loved him. And then he took me in his arms With all the tenderness there is, And when he kissed me, He made me his."

I've been sharing Bessie, Carole, Etta James and others with my daughter (13) and son (11).  My kids also love Amy Winehouse who had commented that this was one of her favorite songs of all time and was a major influence (Winehouse's own musings about abuse are noteworthy and troubling).

I'm hoping that I'm right when I say that more social opprobrium would attach to work like this today than it did when these were penned in the 20s and 60s, respectively, though He Hit Me did not receive a warm welcome by any stretch.  I believe there's some real merit in discussing with the kids that King herself suffered through a physically abusive relationship while she was successful, affluent, incredibly talented and, in fact, really famous.  She suffered in silence as many do.  The fact of the matter is, however, Bessie got it wrong -- it is somebody's business and I hope that if my kids had a friend who was suffering abuse they'd find a way to help.

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