Women Making Music: The Ups and Downs of the Blues

Since Thanksgiving, I’ve had numerous conversations with family, friends, and strangers about how ‘blue’ they feel these days. It could be the state of our world or ‘holiday blues’ but no matter why or when a person feels down and out, the feeling is the same for all of us. And most of us find comfort in music.

Peggy Ratusz & Aaron Price of Bygone Blues. Photo by Frank Zipperer

Peggy Ratusz & Aaron Price of Bygone Blues. Photo by Frank Zipperer

From the cotton pickers of the south, the tortured slaves brought unwillingly to our country, arose the melodic cries of pain and anguish that evolved into what we now refer to as Blues Music. The journey this music has taken is long and winding, wonderful indeed, yet many experts believe it’s a dying art form. But the Blues feeling will never go away – the Yin-Yang of life is perpetual.

There are tons of articles about whether the Blues is dying off and to what degree. I feel sad that the more disheartening facts are true. Yet I am positive that this music, one that triggered and started a phenomenal domino effect, can never die. Thankfully there are artists, photographers, journalists, musicians, and venues all over the world that consistently bring the stories and music of the old Blues women and men to the forefront, as well as promote younger artists to keep it going.

Inadvertently I found my own quote when researching the ups and downs of the Blues! “I hate that the Blues seems to be stalling out. The fans of the Blues are by & large us Baby Boomers. My slogan for a long time has been ‘play it forward’ & it’s not been more relevant than with the Blues. Give a young person a Ma Rainey, a Sippy Wallace, a Bessie Smith, an Etta James, a Janis Joplin, an Irma Thomas, Bonnie Raitt, or Susan Tedeschi track or link them up to YouTube’s of these fine women. Countless astounding male artists too: Big Bill Broonzy, Ledbelly, Lonnie, Robert and Tommy Johnson, Arthur Crudup, JB Lenoir, Jimmy Reed, BB King, and Eric Clapton – gosh, the list goes on & on. Sharing the music with younger generations helps.” The music biography I wrote about myself states, “She’s a willing servant to the Blues.” I am thankfully not alone.

While the evolutionary process is necessary to move us forward in our emotional and functional lives, evolution is tricky when it comes to music and the arts. If I hear a statement enough times, I have to consciously knock it back before it gets into my head as a false truth. That attempt at brainwashing from politicians, religious leaders, or social media participants who publish opinions that don’t resonate, if repeated often enough on a large scale, negatively influences many.

So when someone on TV, in a magazine, or ‘mainstream’ music circles criticizes an artist for sounding old fashioned, or for not being ‘modern’ when a musician decides to emulate music from the past, it tends to chap my hide. These artists who are inspired to copy, or create their own sounds derived from a bygone era, are thankfully, increasingly, being heard. The number of fabulous Gypsy Jazz, Swing and Rag Time, and Vintage Blues acts out there for the listening is daunting! These genres are also well represented in the capable hands and voices within our local music scene. This is another key reason I believe that traditional Blues will not die: most genres owe their evolutionary success to 1900’s Jazz, Vaudeville, and Blues music.

Those who are instrumental in keeping my Blues music dreams alive, my family of fans and friends, know that I am passionate about the legacy of early Jazz and Blues queens. I’ve been comforted, flattered, and forever grateful for the numbers of folks who have shown up for my more vintage-themed shows and collaborations. It delights me to see, hear, and perform with other women and men who also delight in performing music from the past: Russ Wilson, Wendy Jones, Pam Jones, One Leg Up, Firecraker Jazz Band, The Gypsy Swingers, Pleasure Chest, Sparrow and Her Wingmen, Vollie McKenzie & the Western Wildcats, The Gamblers, The Red Hot Sugar Babies, Kat Williams, Paula Hanke, Krista Tortora, Jonathan Pearlman, Jon Corbin, Henry Westmorland, Hank Bones, Michael Jefry Stevens, and so many others.

Aaron Price is a piano player extraordinaire and like many of the aforementioned singers and players, has a variety of musical styles. We’ve partnered to form a duo called Bygone Blues, hatched from a shared passion for Vintage Blues and Women in Blues History. In October 2015, we entered a Blues Challenge (contest) sponsored by The Charlotte Blues Society, competing with eight other solo or duo acts. (And oh, by the way, the top three winners that day were women-fronted acts.) Winning the competition gave us the exciting opportunity to compete in The Blues Foundation 32nd annual International Blues Challenge in Memphis at the end of this month!

There is no other organization that proves the future of the Blues is in good hands than The Blues Foundation. Check this out from the website, www.blues.org:

More so than any other form of music, Blues relies heavily on a grass roots network of urban or regional blues societies for support. Across the USA and around the world, our Affiliates help keep the Blues thriving by producing festivals, booking club gigs, organizing weekly jams, producing a newsletter, website and event calendar, sponsoring blues education or just by coming out, paying a cover charge and making noise. In locations from Maine to California, from Minnesota to Mississippi, and from Australia to Sweden, Blues fans band together for the support of the music they love. The Blues Foundation recognizes the importance of our Affiliates and we constantly seek new ways to provide support to over 200 groups in more than 20 countries.

The Blues Foundation is Memphis-based, but world-renowned as THE organization whose mission is to preserve blues heritage, celebrate blues recording and performance, expand worldwide awareness of the blues, and ensure the future of this uniquely American art form. Founded in 1980, The Blues Foundation has approximately 4,000 individual members and 200 affiliated local blues societies representing another 50,000 fans and professionals. Its signature honors and events – the Blues Music Awards, Blues Hall of Fame, International Blues Challenge, and Keeping the Blues Alive Awards – make it the international center of blues music. Its HART Fund provides the blues community with medical assistance while Blues in the Schools programs and Generation Blues scholarships expose new generations to blues music.

The International Blues Challenge is a five-day event that includes band and solo/duo blues music competition, youth, and international showcases and seminars. Typically, over 250 acts from 40 states and two dozen countries participate in the four rounds in Memphis. Significantly, the acts are sponsored by one of our 200 affiliated organizations in their own region. These events and awards are a culmination of activities undertaken by our affiliates to promote, preserve, and ensure the future of Blues music in their region via their own competitions to determine which up-and-coming act they will send to Memphis for a once-in-a-lifetime artistic and educational opportunity. The top acts receive cash prizes, professional services, and career-changing gigs, and each year competitors other than those judged as winners are ‘discovered’ and doors open for their future musical endeavors.

So you see, winning is a very big deal!!! Our efforts and intention during this four-day competition is to step back in time to honor the women who blazed the trail for us more than 95 years ago. We’ll cover a few of the prominent and countless Black Pearls and Blues Queens from the first four decades of the 1900s, with inspired originals from this bygone era.

Aaron and I will be hosting a ‘Memphis Bound’ fundraising concert at Isis Restaurant and Music Hall on Thursday, January 14th in the intimate upstairs lounge at 6pm. Tickets/Cover is $10. We hope you’ll join us for this very special evening with our friend, one man Blues Band Ed Kostansek, opening. If you cannot make it to the concert, please email me for more information on where and how to donate money to help offset our expenses. I assure you that I’m always looking for ways to play it forward, in honor of keeping the Blues alive.

As a feature writer for this magazine, I am profoundly humbled to bring female artists to the forefront for Sandi, our fine-feathered Editor in Chief, to publish. I am eternally grateful to Sandi and all the women authors who are the subjects of and who write in this rag!

Peggy Ratusz is a vocal coach, songwriter and singer


Peggy Ratusz
Written by Peggy Ratusz