Storefront & Street-Corner: Black Women Musicians with Disabilities Gospel to Blues to…

By Leroy F. Moore Jr.

It has been written time and time again about Black blind men on street corners in the heyday of gospel, blues and folk, singing and entertaining the crowd to make money to survive. However, I also learned that their wives accompanied many of these early blind musicians. In certain cases the women out did their husbands. In Michael Joseph Corcoran’s book, “All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas” and Lawrence Cohn’s book, “Nothing But the Blues” talks about the wives of some of the early famous Blind blues/gospel men from AC Forehand to Blind Mc Tell and of course Blind Willie Johnson. As a researcher of race and disability in popular culture especially in the music field, I am so grateful that Mr. Corcoran and Mr. Cohn has researched and brought Blind Mamie Forehand to this Hip-Hop generation. From my research on Black blind blues singers I recognized that there is not much out there on female Black blind\disabled blues singers.

The story of Blind Mamie Forehand and her blind husband, AC Forehand, who was also her musical partner, is really important for not only music, race, and disabled scholars but for our younger generation. According to gospel and blues writers, the two, Blind Mamie Forehand and AC Forehand, were street performers in Memphis; they were also amongst the earliest recorded in the genre or classification of storefront and street-corner gospel music. Towards the end of the Pre-Depression era spiritual music was commonly heard throughout urban areas.

Blind Mamie Forehand has taught me as an artist how to deal with the business side of the art industry and her life has inspired me. Her work as a blind, Black woman in a male dominated field dealing with the harsh racist attitudes and the hard times of the Depression of the 1920’s can be a road map of where we have been and where we are today as Black people, as Black women and as Black disabled artists in and out of the music industry. According to blind Mamie Forehand’s biography by Eugene Chadbourne, she was an active singer of spirituals on the streets of Memphis, a venue that logically led to the stylistic classification of street-corner or storefront gospel. They were featured among other street gospel singers on the “Storefront and Street-corner Gospel” (1927-1929) CD. It’s hard to find her records today; however, she and her husband are featured on another blind gospel/blues musician CD, “Blind Willie Johnson and the Guitar Evangelists.” This box set can and should be studied by race, disability and music scholars because it includes many early Black blind guitar gospel, folk and blues musicians.

In 2005, Pushing Limits, a radio show, on KPFA in Berkeley, I co-hosted a show titled, “Black Blind Blues.” We realized that the featured artists were all men. I felt ashamed of myself after the show so I dug deeper into my research on Black disabled women with disabilities who laid serious groundwork that continues to teach us today. It’s funny to read how Hip-Hop magazines mention the OG’s of Hip-Hop. The editors of these magazines need to sit down, read and listen to one of the greatest comebacks of all times, Johnnie Mae Dunson Smith, who blazed the Blues industry in the 40’s. She is known as the Queen of the Blues. She was one of the first female Blues drummers.

According to an insert of her comeback CD, “Big Boss Lady of 2000,” Johnnie Mae Dunson Smith had been using a wheelchair for some time. At 80 something, she wanted to make another CD. This original queen of the Blues had been through so much including a 1998 eviction from her home in Alabama. She came out of retirement to sing at Blues events to raise awareness for an effort to stop the destruction of the old Maxwell Street area and to record her comeback CD “Big Boss Lady.” She performed as a wheelchair user.

Like Johnnie Ma Dunson, many female Blues artists continue their craft throughout their golden years when sometimes disability becomes part of their days. Similar to Johnnie, LaVern Baker, Rock & Roll & Blues singer of the early 50’s made her comeback in the early nineties after fifteen years out of the spotlight with an album entitled “Woke Up This Mornin.” During this time she was battling with diabetes and a series of strokes. Her legs were amputated because of the diabetes.

In a 1997 article entitled: “The Rhythm and Blues Foundation is a Cover for Record Company Rip-offs” from Rock & Rap Confidential/1997, it says “even when she was dying, LaVern Baker continued to perform from a wheelchair because she needed to pay for her artificial legs, not to mention the rent.” Also her career was hampered like other Black artists from inferior white covers stealing her glory. LaVern Baker passed away on March 10, 1997. Blues diva Sippie Wallace was born on November 1, 1898. She made a comeback in her eighties and went on tour in her wheelchair with Bonnie Raitt. Her last album entitled “Sippi” was nominated for a Grammy in 1983. She died November 1, 1986.

I know about the soulful Water Jackson who had polio and performed on crutches but I recently learned about Varetta Dillard who was one of the great-unknown blues shouters of the 1950s. In the sleeve notes of CD 200 box set entitled, “Simply Blues” 4cds of essential blues music it reads: Dillard was born crippled and performed on crutches all her life. All Music Guide has also reported that Dillard spent much of her childhood in hospitals due to a bone deficiency. Dillard turned to music as a form of the therapy.

These sisters have done their thing in the music field and did not get the attention they deserved. Charlie Jene of Los Angeles is carrying on the women’s legacy with her own Bluesy, Jazzy style. From her CD entitled, “Introducing Charlie Jene: Live & Feel the Heat” is clearly the talk of L.A. She notes that in 1970 she began singing professionally in Ohio becoming the first blind female blues singer in the area.

Now it is time to do a follow up radio show on Black women musicians with disabilities, not only Gospel and Blues, but across music genre.