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Bessie: Chris Albertson, Angela Davis, and Carl Van Vechten

19 posts in this topic

I mentioned in the “Which Mosaic Are You Enjoying Right Now?” thread that Art Hodes’ book Selections from the Gutter: Portraits from the Jazz Record makes a great accompaniment to his music. I found it especially fascinating in his descriptions of the early Chicago scene with Wingy Manone, venues like the Liberty Inn, and forgotten legends like saxophonist Bennie Moylan and boogie-woogie pianists Cow Cow Davenport and Montana Taylor. However, when I got to the Bessie Smith section, I inevitably ran into Carl Van Vechten’s ‘Memories of Bessie Smith.’ I’ve unfortunately read this same account of Bessie Smith’s 1925 performance from the lens of the particular rich white patron in three books now. I previously came across it in Chris Albertson’s Bessie and in Angela Davis’ Blues Legacies and Black Feminism.

Chris, first of all I’d like to thank you for your work on the biography Bessie. One could not have asked for someone more dedicated to preserving the legacy of the important blues woman. Your knack for detail left no stone unturned. It is clear that you forged an honest, personal bond with Ruby and Maude, and it was wise to feature their touching accounts so prominently. Well done! Also, I should say that I truly benefited from your accurate accounts of Bessie Smith’s interactions with the KKK and the other racial terrorists in Texas, so please don’t take any of the following questions as implications that you ever glazed over Bessie’s experience as an oppressed Black woman. Regarding Van Vechten’s account, you correctly note its seemingly ‘anachronistic’ impression, as it was not written until 1947. I understand you wanted to cover Van Vechten’s role in the development of Smith’s career, but were you at all reluctant to include this account of her live performance? It doesn’t make me feel as if I have a first-person account of the show; it clouds any image I’d previously envisioned under a racist, exoticizing veil. I’d understand including it only for the purpose of disclosing the absurd stereotypes even the most dedicated white blues fan espoused, but you seem to use it in order to provide an example of what it could have been like to be in the audience at the time. Could you share your thoughts on this?

Reading this little story again inspired me to grab Angela Davis’ book again. I had the honor of meeting Angela Davis about five years ago in Boston, where she spoke about the prison-industrial complex. Chris, have you met her, or did you have any interaction with her for her book? As I’m sure you all know (and if you don’t, read her autobiography), Davis has led a famous life as a student of Marcuse in Frankfurt, a member of the Communist Party, a leader in the Black Power movement, legal advisor to George Jackson and the Soledad Brothers, underground fugitive, political prisoner, professor of social theory, feminist, and prison rights advocate. Her aforementioned book on blues women is great not only for its critical look at the “aesthetic dimension’s” effect on the respective political agencies of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday, but it also includes the lyrics to every tune recorded by Rainey and Smith! In her book, Davis quotes Van Vechten’s account only because “its significance lies in the way it reveals the racist assumptions behind Van Vechten’s and other powerful whites’ appreciation of black cultural forms.” Again, that is all I got from it, anyway.

Chris, since you are a member here on the board, I thought I’d also get your reaction to a couple of Davis’ other related assertions.

RE: The reason for Bessie Smith’s uncharacteristic recording of popular tune "Muddy Water," and its Southern nostalgia for the "Dixie Way"

Davis (BL&BF p. 88): "Why would Bessie Smith record such a song? Chris Albertson challenges critics’ explanation for the recording session during which this song was produced—which consisted exclusively of popular songs, including ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ by Irving Berlin—as an attempt to revitalize her popularity by recording ‘commercial’ material. [Edward] Brooks is probably right in pointing to her lack of control over this material. Albertson notes that during the time this session took place, Smith was appearing at the Lincoln Theater in Harlem in a show that was advertised as ‘Bessie Smith and Her Yellow Girl Revue.’ Albertson suggests that she probably had nothing to do with the production and billing of the show, because ‘she had always expressed monumental disdain for light-complexioned women.’ What Albertson fails to indicate here is that it would not have been merely a question of prejudice on Smith’s part. In fact, during that period, light-skinned showgirls were the only ones given work in most of Harlem’s clubs and theaters.” (Davis then gives Chris credit for pointing out Joe Smith’s significant role as trumpeter on the takes of the tune.) Chris, do you have any response to this?

RE: Bessie Smith’s understanding of race relations as well as class relations

Davis (BL&BF p. 96): “ ‘Poor Man’s Blues’ was composed by Bessie Smith and recorded in 1928. Chris Albertson calls it ‘a poignant song of social protest’ and designates it as ‘Black Man’s Blues.’ As critics would later define Billie Holiday as ‘apolitical,’ Albertson implies that Smith ‘had no interest in politics,’ that, in other words, she was not capable of thinking about class relations—lines of demarcation between rich and poor—but only about race relations—those between white and black. However, the words of ‘Poor Man’s Blues’ refute this narrative of Smith’s political apathy.

Mister rich man, rich man, open up your heart and mind

Mister rich man, rich man, open up your heart and mind

Give the poor man a chance, help stop these hard, hard times

While you’re livin’ in your mansion, you don’t know what hard times means

While you’re livin’ in your mansion, you don’t know what hard times means

Poor working man’s wife is starvin’, your wife’s livin’ like a queen

Please, listen to my pleading, ‘cause I can’t stand these hard times long

Oh, listen to my pleading, can’t stand these hard times long

They’ll make an honest man do things that you know is wrong

Poor man fought all the battles, poor man would fight again today

Poor man fought all the battles, poor man would fight again today

He would do anything you ask him in the name of the U.S.A.

Now the war is over, poor man must live the same as you

Now the war is over, poor man must live the same as you

If it wasn’t for the poor man, mister rich man, what would you do?”

Davis then expands on the complex economic circumstances that black people found themselves in at the time and how Bessie Smith’s lyrics grasp the social roots of those circumstances. Chris, I know from my brief visits to the political topics on this message board that you come from a left perspective, perhaps not as radical as Angela Davis. Do you believe Bessie Smith was apathetic? Or was economic liberation an intention in her music?

--Jay

Edited by zanonesdelpueblo

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I mentioned in the “Which Mosaic Are You Enjoying Right Now?” thread that Art Hodes’ book Selections from the Gutter: Portraits from the Jazz Record makes a great accompaniment to his music. I found it especially fascinating in his descriptions of the early Chicago scene with Wingy Manone, venues like the Liberty Inn, and forgotten legends like saxophonist Bennie Moylan and boogie-woogie pianists Cow Cow Davenport and Montana Taylor. However, when I got to the Bessie Smith section, I inevitably ran into Carl Van Vechten’s ‘Memories of Bessie Smith.’ I’ve unfortunately read this same account of Bessie Smith’s 1925 performance from the lens of the particular rich white patron in three books now. I previously came across it in Chris Albertson’s Bessie and in Angela Davis’ Blues Legacies and Black Feminism.

Chris, first of all I’d like to thank you for your work on the biography Bessie. One could not have asked for someone more dedicated to preserving the legacy of the important blues woman. Your knack for detail left no stone unturned. It is clear that you forged an honest, personal bond with Ruby and Maude, and it was wise to feature their touching accounts so prominently. Well done! Also, I should say that I truly benefited from your accurate accounts of Bessie Smith’s interactions with the KKK and the other racial terrorists in Texas, so please don’t take any of the following questions as implications that you ever glazed over Bessie’s experience as an oppressed Black woman. Regarding Van Vechten’s account, you correctly note its seemingly ‘anachronistic’ impression, as it was not written until 1947. I understand you wanted to cover Van Vechten’s role in the development of Smith’s career, but were you at all reluctant to include this account of her live performance? It doesn’t make me feel as if I have a first-person account of the show; it clouds any image I’d previously envisioned under a racist, exoticizing veil. I’d understand including it only for the purpose of disclosing the absurd stereotypes even the most dedicated white blues fan espoused, but you seem to use it in order to provide an example of what it could have been like to be in the audience at the time. Could you share your thoughts on this?

Jay, thank you for giving my book more than a cursory read and for posing intelligent questions that reflect your broad interest in Bessie Smith and the dilemma faced by her.

I included the Van Vechten account in order to give as many pieces as possible of the puzzle that one inevitably faces when trying to paint a picture from afar (in terms of time and, in my case, certainly background). Remember, I grew up in Iceland and Denmark, both of which are, in every respect, very far removed from Bessie's environment. I do find Van Vechten's description impossible to take seriously as a performance review, but I think we can look at it from a different perspective and conclude that he does give us, if not a front seat to a Bessie Smith performance, a good insight into how Bessie was perceived by a privileged white man who embraced the culture from the outside. I never doubted that Van Vechten's enthusiasm was genuine, but he was severely handicapped by the wall of social division that he apparently only peeked behind when having fleeting liaisons in his dimly lit Harlem getaway apartment. This is an impression I got from speaking to a number of people who knew and observed him in one social milieu or the other—or both. I think we really get a focused picture of where Van Vechten was coming from when we read his introduction to a 1950 reprint of
Nigger Heaven
, his 1926 novel that, understandably, was condemned before it was read.

  • When I am asked how I happen to know so much about Negro character and Negro customs, I can answer proudly that many Negroes are my intimate friends. The Negro magazine Ebony once alluded to me as the white man who had more friends among colored people of distinction than any other white person in America. With a high degree of accuracy, I can still boast that many Negroes are still my friends.

Reading this little story again inspired me to grab Angela Davis’ book again. I had the honor of meeting Angela Davis about five years ago in Boston, where she spoke about the prison-industrial complex. Chris, have you met her, or did you have any interaction with her for her book?

I'm afraid I never met Ms. Davis, but—especially since I was general manager of New York's Pacifica station during her most active years as a radical—I followed her activities closely. Many years later, she contacted my first publisher (Stein & Day) to obtain a considerable number of book for use in her classroom. It was required reading, I understand, which did not exempt it from criticism.

Her aforementioned book on blues women is great not only for its critical look at the “aesthetic dimension’s” effect on the respective political agencies of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday, but it also includes the lyrics to every tune recorded by Rainey and Smith! In her book, Davis quotes Van Vechten’s account only because “its significance lies in the way it reveals the racist assumptions behind Van Vechten’s and other powerful whites’ appreciation of black cultural forms.” Again, that is all I got from it, anyway.

I read Angela Davis' book and pretty much agree with her conclusions, but I have to admit that I think including
all
the lyrics (100 pages) served more as a filler than anything else. Having them there, all together, is convenient for people like me, but overkill, nevertheless.

Chris, since you are a member here on the board, I thought I’d also get your reaction to a couple of Davis’ other related assertions.

RE: The reason for Bessie Smith’s uncharacteristic recording of popular tune "Muddy Water," and its Southern nostalgia for the "Dixie Way"

Davis (BL&BF p. 88): "Why would Bessie Smith record such a song? Chris Albertson challenges critics’ explanation for the recording session during which this song was produced—which consisted exclusively of popular songs, including ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ by Irving Berlin—as an attempt to revitalize her popularity by recording ‘commercial’ material. [Edward] Brooks is probably right in pointing to her lack of control over this material. Albertson notes that during the time this session took place, Smith was appearing at the Lincoln Theater in Harlem in a show that was advertised as ‘Bessie Smith and Her Yellow Girl Revue.’ Albertson suggests that she probably had nothing to do with the production and billing of the show, because ‘she had always expressed monumental disdain for light-complexioned women.’ What Albertson fails to indicate here is that it would not have been merely a question of prejudice on Smith’s part. In fact, during that period, light-skinned showgirls were the only ones given work in most of Harlem’s clubs and theaters.” (Davis then gives Chris credit for pointing out Joe Smith’s significant role as trumpeter on the takes of the tune.) Chris, do you have any response to this?

This is what I wrote about that session:

  • Blues purists—who, oddly enough, don’t complain about Bessie’s 1923 recordings of lesser-known pop fare—have bemoaned her “commercial” repertoire for this session, and critics have rationalized it as an attempt to regain lost ground. But Bessie’s popularity was not threatened at the time, and her recordings reflected only a part of her actual repertoire. Her treatment of these songs offers delightful evidence of her talent for turning banal material into something special.

As for Bessie's "Yellow Girl Revue", Davis fails to mention that—as I pointed out in my book—Bessie went against convention and did not hire light-complexioned ladies for her own show. She had a solution for theater owners who balked: put the girls in amber light.

RE: Bessie Smith’s understanding of race relations as well as class relations

Davis (BL&BF p. 96): “ ‘Poor Man’s Blues’ was composed by Bessie Smith and recorded in 1928. Chris Albertson calls it ‘a poignant song of social protest’ and designates it as ‘Black Man’s Blues.’ As critics would later define Billie Holiday as ‘apolitical,’ Albertson implies that Smith ‘had no interest in politics,’ that, in other words, she was not capable of thinking about class relations—lines of demarcation between rich and poor—but only about race relations—those between white and black. However, the words of ‘Poor Man’s Blues’ refute this narrative of Smith’s political apathy.

Mister rich man, rich man, open up your heart and mind

Mister rich man, rich man, open up your heart and mind

Give the poor man a chance, help stop these hard, hard times

While you’re livin’ in your mansion, you don’t know what hard times means

While you’re livin’ in your mansion, you don’t know what hard times means

Poor working man’s wife is starvin’, your wife’s livin’ like a queen

Please, listen to my pleading, ‘cause I can’t stand these hard times long

Oh, listen to my pleading, can’t stand these hard times long

They’ll make an honest man do things that you know is wrong

Poor man fought all the battles, poor man would fight again today

Poor man fought all the battles, poor man would fight again today

He would do anything you ask him in the name of the U.S.A.

Now the war is over, poor man must live the same as you

Now the war is over, poor man must live the same as you

If it wasn’t for the poor man, mister rich man, what would you do?”

Davis then expands on the complex economic circumstances that black people found themselves in at the time and how Bessie Smith’s lyrics grasp the social roots of those circumstances. Chris, I know from my brief visits to the political topics on this message board that you come from a left perspective, perhaps not as radical as Angela Davis. Do you believe Bessie Smith was apathetic? Or was economic liberation an intention in her music?

Here's what I wrote regarding
Poor Man's Blues
:

  • It is of course pure conjecture, but Bessie’s lyrics may have been inspired by her memorable visit to Van Vechten’s salon four months earlier. A weave of social commentary, this is the most poignant of all her compositions, and although it is a plea for the “rich man” to open his heart to the “poor man,” the song may have been intended to convey a different meaning. The war had been over for ten years, but Wilson’s promise of democracy—if it ever included blacks—remained unfulfilled, and neither the Harding nor the Coolidge administration had made any progress in bringing racial equality to “the land of the free.” Bessie had no interest in politics, per se, but that did not place blinders on her; it was plain that the postwar boom favored the white man, and Bessie’s audiences knew that this song of social protest was as much about racial inequity as it was about economic disparity. Thus “Poor Man’s Blues” was, in fact, “Black Man’s Blues,” the words “white” and “black” being interchangeable with “rich” and “poor.” It was a fact that Bessie’s audiences understood. Ruby and others recalled that Bessie frequently made racial references, but she probably gauged her audience carefully before doing so, and she never approached the subject directly on her recordings. Her delivery straightforward and purposeful, Bessie sings “Poor Man’s Blues” with a minimum of vocal effects. She clearly felt deeply about the song’s message, and she transmits it with a profoundly moving intensity:
    Mister rich man, rich man, open up your heart and mind.....

Davis misunderstood what I was saying about Bessie's interest (or lack of) in politics. I believe she was well aware of politics as they affected people, but there was no indication of her taking an interest (or even bothering to learn about) politicians of her day. FDR? Of course, but not much beyond him. Her awareness of the political climate, as it affected black people (and poor whites, for that matter) rules out apathy. She sang and wrote songs about social conditions. She made enough money to move well above the level she chose to live in.

Have I answered your questions, Jay? If not, let me know.

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Thanks Chris. Those are exactly the sort of responses I was looking for. I'm honored and glad to be able to share this forum with you. What a strange character Van Vechten was! I wasn't even aware of the controversial book you alluded to. He does seem genuine, obviously flawed, but genuine. They do say the road to hell is paved with good intentions, though. I was just struck by how problematic his account is. I just think it is important to note that. And you did, in fact, by mentioning how anachronistic it was. In hindsight, I was probably more stirred up by its inclusion in Hodes' book without any commentary. It just struck me as odd because the copyright for that book is 1977.

I'm afraid I never met Ms. Davis, but—especially since I was general manager of New York's Pacifica station during her most active years as a radical—I followed her activities closely. Many years later, she contacted my first publisher (Stein & Day) to obtain a considerable number of book for use in her classroom. It was required reading, I understand, which did not exempt it from criticism.

Interesting. It does seem that even in her book, not only in her classes, she used your book as a source of information and background, probably more than a previous work to criticize.

I read Angela Davis' book and pretty much agree with her conclusions, but I have to admit that I think including
all
the lyrics (100 pages) served more as a filler than anything else. Having them there, all together, is convenient for people like me, but overkill, nevertheless.

Yeah, I suppose it could be considered overkill. I hadn’t thought about it as filler because she has gotten some really thin pamphlet-type books published in the past without an evident desire to needlessly extend them. Like you, I am glad to have it all there in one place.

Albertson notes that during the time this session took place, Smith was appearing at the Lincoln Theater in Harlem in a show that was advertised as ‘Bessie Smith and Her Yellow Girl Revue.’ Albertson suggests that she probably had nothing to do with the production and billing of the show, because ‘she had always expressed monumental disdain for light-complexioned women.’ What Albertson fails to indicate here is that it would not have been merely a question of prejudice on Smith’s part. In fact, during that period, light-skinned showgirls were the only ones given work in most of Harlem’s clubs and theaters.” (Davis then gives Chris credit for pointing out Joe Smith’s significant role as trumpeter on the takes of the tune.) Chris, do you have any response to this?

As for Bessie's "Yellow Girl Revue", Davis fails to mention that—as I pointed out in my book—Bessie went against convention and did not hire light-complexioned ladies for her own show. She had a solution for theater owners who balked: put the girls in amber light.

Great point. I actually thought that this was criticism for the sake of it on the part of Davis. She doesn’t really provide much explanation. Just seems like a random jab.

Davis misunderstood what I was saying about Bessie's interest (or lack of) in politics. I believe she was well aware of politics as they affected people, but there was no indication of her taking an interest (or even bothering to learn about) politicians of her day. FDR? Of course, but not much beyond him. Her awareness of the political climate, as it affected black people (and poor whites, for that matter) rules out apathy. She sang and wrote songs about social conditions. She made enough money to move well above the level she chose to live in.

Have I answered your questions, Jay? If not, let me know.

Absolutely. Thank you for taking the time!

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Yet another demonstration of why THIS board is like NO OTHER, and I do mean NO other. ;)

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Yet another demonstration of why THIS board is like NO OTHER, and I do mean NO other. ;)

Amen!

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Absolutely. I realize I could have just sent Chris a PM, but I wanted to keep this topic open for anyone else's input too. Although that's probably not even necessary after Chris' succinct response.

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Great discussion!

I wrote my MA thesis on an artist (painter) from Washington, D.C. Given the connections between Howard U. and the Harlem Renaissance, I couldn't escape having to read some of Van Vechten's stuff. Let's just say that I was profoundly relieved that he stayed put in NY. ;)

Edited by seeline

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Yet another demonstration of why THIS board is like NO OTHER, and I do mean NO other. ;)

Absolutely. :tup

Yes, this represents the Board at its absolute best: earnest questions respectfully asked and respectfully answered. It's the reason I love to read it. Well, that and some of the MOST obscure--but crazy wonderful--discographical arcana available anywhere!! :D

Greg Mo

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Just ordered a copy of 'Bessie' after reading the chapter of Humphrey Lyttelton's 'The Best of Jazz' on Bessie Smith (which praises the early version of the book on several occasions) and listening to the Naxos compilations of some of her music.

Very much looking forward to it - will interest me as a music fan but also provide some anecdotes to tell my 16-17 year olds whilst studying Civil Rights.

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Read this over the last fortnight. Marvellous book - the love for both the music and Bessie herself shines through. And very good history - great care taken to point out variations in the telling of a tale when recounted by several witnesses. In fact, what I like most is the constant care with which myths are examined. I think I understand a bit better Chris' annoyance with the 'Jazz' TV series now.

Something to depress (though not surprise) you, Chris. A few years back I was at a teaching conference and attended a workshop on teaching Civil Rights. The teacher running the session introduced us to what was, in teaching terms, an excellent way of gaining student interest, using Bessie Smith as a point of human interest to explain the wider social situation. Sadly, the passage used was one that recounted the story of her being refused a white hospital after her accident.

There's a better lesson lying in that story - how, despite plenty of evidence proving otherwise, a strong myth will survive and be repreated regardless.

Thanks for your work on the book, Chris. A great read and one that gave me a feel for the 20s and early 30s in the States that I'd not experienced before.

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Thank you, Bev. Words fail me, suffice it to say that I feel honored by your praise for the book.

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Great thread! Well now I had to get the book "Bessie" too.

Edited by jostber

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it is, as they say, a classic - as I work on a new book on the blues, I'm perusing it to see what I can plagiarize -

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Chris, I still have the original hardback. How important are the changes in later editions?

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Chris, I still have the original hardback. How important are the changes in later editions?

Day and night, I think, Chuck. The Yale edition is almost twice as long, and the funeral procession no longer walks into the Schuylkill River. I had taken the route from the day's papers and Henry Pleasants told me to have them make a right, if there ever was a next time. I obliged. :)

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I am getting dizzy!

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Just ordered a copy of 'Bessie' after reading the chapter of Humphrey Lyttelton's 'The Best of Jazz' on Bessie Smith (which praises the early version of the book on several occasions) and listening to the Naxos compilations of some of her music.

Very much looking forward to it - will interest me as a music fan but also provide some anecdotes to tell my 16-17 year olds whilst studying Civil Rights.

Again, 3 years later, thank you for the kind words re Bessie. I am popping in here to point out (if I haven't already) that I put on my blog Dr. Hugh Smith's account of the Bessie Smith accident. He did not witness the crash, but he was on the scene within a minute. You will find the account here.

Also, since you mentioned Humphrey Lyttelton, yesterday I added another selection from my 1953 recordings at the Lyttelton Club (Farewell Blues). Here is a direct link to that.

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ok - it's time to 'fess up and UPDATE my antiquated (but still great) copy of 'Bessie' (pure tight-waddishness that it's taken till now - I'm still listening to Robert Johnson on a Charly double cassette) :ph34r:

re. the 'Muddy Water' issue - Angela Y Davis does neglect to mention the many many blues songs which have a theme of nostalgia for the south, with varying degrees of both 'corniness' and brilliance of delivery:

Scrapper Blackwell – Down South Blues

Clara Smith – Down Home Bound Blues

Cow Cow Davenport – Goin’ Home Blues

Joe Pullum – Dixie My Home

Lonnie Johnson - Sleepy Water

etc etc

why it should require justification I'm not too sure - if the songs are to reflect the mood of the people, the disappointment of the north should figure as highly as anything else - and yes, she does transform that song with her delivery (and it needn't just be due to an injection of irony as Davis suggests, I think) - like Lonnie Johnson does with Sleepy Water. Also, elsewhere she makes an unnecessary defense for 'Need a Little Sugar In My Bowl' against charges of quasi-pornography - which is ludicrous of course - but she forgets to mention that it's supposed to be humorous - double entendre, which brings us back to Humphrey Lyttleton, who regularly got away with murder on daytime family radio. (Not that I didn't like her book..)

Edited by cih

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