Saturday, March 12, 2016

Sippie Wallace and the Suitcase Blues

On my kitchen counter is a 4 ½’ x 4’ X 4’ inch Sony Dream Machine. My best companion, I got it down a few blocks in the pink-painted Out of the Closet thrift store in my neighborhood, down by the lake. I was donating clothes in the back room, and as I was leaving, I happened to walk by the discarded electronics section. My other radio had grown out of tune, unable to hold a station without static. “Perfect,” I said, and brought the hand-sized cube to the counter, someone’s cast off that would please me with its complex simplicity. A surprising 3 dollars later, I walked out with my radio. I have of late tuned my cream colored block with the circle of pores on the side to Jazz station KCSM 91.1, and I have been learning a lot from its jazz gurus. (Finding the station, I immediately sent some money in, grateful for this stream of heritage and knowledge.)

Listening to KCSM 91.1 Friday night (March 11), going on toward 10 p.m., I was rattling around the kitchen making a late dinner as station host Kathleen Lawton was spinning some blues cycles. We were getting deep in there together. And then, as I chopped onions and mushrooms and put kale on to boil with chopped garlic in salted water, the circle of pores—kind of an ear— from the Sony block spoke these words in the clear, low voice of a woman:
I love you baby
But your ways I just can’t stand
The blues arrangement instrumentation style registered as calling from a bygone era, but the speaker’s words were as clear and present to me as if she were in my kitchen with me, full-bodied and breathing, effortlessly declaring something that I just couldn’t miss. I immediately thought of about eleven situations in which her lyric would apply perfectly. My attention spiked upward, and I listened in closely for the next quatrains of wisdom. The singer didn’t disappoint, and Sippie Wallace instantly became my new heroine.
Watch Sippie Wallace sing "Suitcase Blues"

Born in Arkansas in 1898 as Beulah Thomas, one of 13 children, Sippie by her teens was sneaking out with her siblings to watch travelling tent shows. Ragtime bands would breeze into town and Sippie and her siblings would listen through a crack in the canvas tent. She was listening just so one night when one of the band members called to her to come replace a chorus girl. She sang that night, and began performing in tent shows. She went on to tour throughout Texas, a blueswoman who sang lyrics written by herself and her two brothers. In 1923, along with her brother Hersal Thomas, a talented pianist, she moved to Chicago and soon was on top of the country’s blues records. She was the contemporary of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, and later in her life, would go on to record & tour in Denmark and Germany.
But in the late 20s, things changed for Sippie. The Great Depression hit, and Sippie’s brother & musical collaborator Hersal died of food poisoning, followed by her brother George, who died in a streetcar accident, and finally, her own husband.

Shaken, in the 1930s Sippie took a sabbatical from show business, opting to be the church organist, choir director, and singer in Detroit’s Leland Baptist Church.

In the 1960s, with the blues revival, the younger blues artist Victoria Spivey coaxed Sippie out of retirement to perform secular music again, with Sippie eventually winning a Grammy Award in 1982.
Listening to the radio in my Oakland kitchen in March 2016, I feel pulled by Sippie Wallace’s lyrics:
I love you baby
But your ways I just can’t stand
This couplet seems in short order to solve a conundrum I’ve tossed around for some time. How indeed can you love someone whose “ways,” as she terms them, can be inscrutable?

Some among us might be tempted to either convince the heart to quit loving them, or else to do the slow creep-crawl of permitting such ways. (I’ve done both.)

But with a swift Zen-soul-woman couplet, she lays down the blues koan that brings them together, denying neither side of this equatorial gap that’s growing:
I love you baby
But your ways I just can’t stand
The California 2016 resident in me can’t help noting, having read Marshall Goldberg’s Nonviolent Communication—to which I have turned when my own heart was in many wrangled spots—that she does not at all say “your low-down ways.” She throws out no such phrases. I.e., to use the compassionate communication terminology, she doesn’t blame or judge. We know in these lyrics very little about what her gentleman did to make her prepare her trunk with clothes. Well, she does sing later,
You know baby
You always treated me wrong,
but that’s about as specific as she gets. More than a list of complaints, what we hear more is the effect it has on her, which is the gauge by which she knows she has to go:
No more baby
He runs me crazy
I love this turn of phrase, “runs me crazy.” As she sings to us, she is on the precipice, trying to convince herself to go. This song is her goodbye song, both to him and to herself: she needs to sing this in order to go. We know she needs this song because she tells us, in that same paradoxical phrasing, of her opposing feelings—at once scared to leave and trying to find the space and volition to set off:
But I’m scared to go now
Let me go on by myself
Trying to go, she denies neither her love for him nor her own need to not stand those ways. I.e., she knows that up with which she cannot put.

To follow the compassionate communication thread, it’s about her and her own self-knowledge: she has come to that precipice because a line has formed and widened, and that line is her own knowledge about what she can and cannot stand. And that standing or not standing is independent from her love. From that love, she wishes a blessing—in which they both are held:
You get you another woman
I’ll get me another man
Now, this blessing-in-common is very different than the vitriol that one might think one should summon in order to push over the precipice into leaving, now isn’t it? In fact, one might fear that if one is really in the zone of heartful blessing, then one may be pulled back in to stay, right? But in this song, despite its mournful tone in spots, there is another tone: the triumph of a love that declines to sow division even when it knows it must depart.
Interestingly, there are 2 kinds of love in this song: first, the generalized, fundamental love mentioned above—from which she declares unconditionally, “I love you baby”—and second, the more specific, contingent love of what’s-happening-now-between-us. It’s from this second, what’s-happening-now love that she sings:
Cuz where there ain’t no lovin’
There ain’t no getting along
There is a paradox in this song, which is what sews it together. The paradox sews together both the fullness of her love—in the ideal sense—and her utter emptiness—in the everyday now sense:
Oh I ain’t got me
No more baby now
Together, the lines mean: I have nothing more in me that can continue with this relationship. Alternatively, they could be a declaration that she no longer has a lover in him. This lyric she repeats 3 times. These are the magic words to get her over. Over the threshold, into the unnamed place where her trunk has gone on ahead of her. The “trunk done gone,” decisively, and it’s the rest of her that is waiting to catch up with the decisive trunk with its implied fullness in a nameless present-future place.

But it’s hard. We hear her mournful tone here:
I’m leavin’ you daddy
But it almost breaks my heart
And then she departs, in a lyric that unites the dividing line of her departure with an assurance of the endurance of this wider, idealized love that unites friends:
But you know daddy
The best friends some time must part
These two distinct feelings remain a paradox, and only by offering this final friend-blessing while at the same time ending with this definitive end-word, “part,” can she finally step toward her packed suitcase and go. Her trunk that she has sent on ahead to an unnamed destination, along with her full suitcase, are all she holds of herself, and she goes.
Suitcase Blues by Sippie Wallace

Well my suitcase is packed
Trunk done gone
You know by that
I ain’t gonna be here long

But I’m scared to go now
Let me go on by myself
Lord I’m scared to go now
Let me go by myself

I love you baby
But your ways I just can’t stand
I love you baby
But your ways I just can’t stand

You get you another woman
I’ll get me another man

Cuz where there ain’t no lovin’
There ain’t no getting along
Cuz where there ain’t no lovin’
There ain’t no getting along

You know baby
You always treated me wrong

No more baby
He runs me crazy
I ain’t got me
No more baby

Oh I ain’t got me
No more baby now
Oh I ain’t got me
No more baby now

I’m leavin’ you daddy
But it almost breaks my heart
I’m leavin’ you daddy
But it almost breaks my heart

But you know daddy
The best friends some time must part
Read more about Sippie Wallace

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