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World Music Matters

Sarah Lenka sings legacy of African-American women's blues

Audio 14:36
Sarah Lenka was deeply touched by the heartfelt chant of several African American women from the early part of the century
Sarah Lenka was deeply touched by the heartfelt chant of several African American women from the early part of the century ©Hugues Anhes

After a third album I don't dress fine in tribute to American blues singer Bessie Smith, French jazz singer Sarah Lenka has released Women's Legacy. Her subtle rendition of work songs and prison songs convey the suffering and resilience of several African American women in the early 20th century.


Since her 2008 debut album Am I Blue, Lenka has had a thing about the tragic lives of some women singers.

"From the beginning of my career I really was touched by women, how they’ve been abused," she says.

"It started with Billie Holiday and then later on came Bessie Smith. I really like the way she sang her story. Whether it was horrible or beautiful, she really opened her mouth and [accepted] what she was."

Delving into Bessie "Empress of the Blues" Smith's repertoire, Lenka fell upon No More My Lawd, a prison song that had been recorded by American ethnomusicologists Alan and John Lomax. During the 1930s and 40s they travelled widely in the Southern States recording work songs, spirituals and folk tales sung by prisoners and former slaves.

The songs were not meant to be sung to the public and Lenka was struck by their raw energy.

"I was really blown away by the fact it was not songs but just chant, just words with a melody."

She does a heartfelt but far from maudlin arrangement of The story of Barbara Allen, a traditional 17th century Scottish ballad Alan Lomax recorded at the women's dormitory at Raiford penitentiary in 1939. It was sung by African American inmate Hule "Queen" Hines.

"She was just singing whatever came through her head," says Lenka. "That really touched me, you're just saying what you lived a very intimate way."

Lenka's album begins with Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around. This stirring spiritual became a kind of anthem for the American civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s and was famously recorded by Sweet Honey in the Rock.

She does justice to the bluesy Trouble so hard, famously sampled by American electronic musician Moby on Natural Blues in 2000, but originally written and performed by American folk singer Vera Hall in 1937 and again recorded by Lomax.

Women can relate to each other

There's humour on the song Oh Death - a "conversation" with death first recorded by American gospel and folk singer Bessie Jones

"Oh Death walked up to the sinner's gate, Said I believe you have waited now a little too late, Your fever now is one hundred and two, You have narrow chance that you'll ever pull through," goes the song.

Lomax met Smith on a field recording trip in 1959 and remarked on her "fire to teach America," calling her "the Mother Courage of American Black traditions".

So what does Lenka bring to these songs? A rich, playful, sometimes raunchy timbre, impeccable harmonies (she does all the vocals), and a sensitivity and respect for the blues genre but with no attempt to cash in on the pain at the heart of it.

"I wouldn’t allow myself to connect with their suffering because there’s no way I can start to understand," she says, "but I think women can relate to each other in the need to express whatever abuse you’re feeling.

"Sometimes you have no other way how to express whatever happens to you ... than through the body. You have one word with one note coming and it somehow puts a space to breathe."

Women's Legacy includes four of Lenka's own compositions. One is the ballad I fight every day. "I fight every day... to wake up with a smile," she sings.

"I think it's a way of saying stand up and continue."

Women's Legacy album cover
Women's Legacy album cover ©Sarah Lenka

Sarah Lenka is in concert at Duc des Lombards, Paris, on 14 and 15 June, 2019.

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