BERTHA

by colinptucker

BERTHA
I’ve just had three nights in Lewisham Hospital (don’t ask) bored out of my skull with nothing much to do other than think while various splendid people busied themselves on my behalf.
I thought about:
‘Time’s ruins and the seven laws,’ and realised that much though I love the line I hate the poem it’s embedded in. Eliot’s anti-semitism gets worse every time I encounter it. So I stopped thinking about it.
Then I thought about my struggles with my novel, The Prince Of Bad Ideas, and wondered if the current in-revision version needs less reflection and more events. More comedy, too. After all that was the original intention, to write a comedy, if at times a sad one, a comedy of desperation in denial. But I didn’t have my lap-top with me. So I stopped thinking about it.
Then I thought about poems. And that turned into thinking about songs and I realised that I wanted badly, very badly, to hear yet again one of my favourite female blues singers delivering what I regard as one of the greatest blues tracks ever. So once I was discharged and had arrived home I put it on and luxuriated in it, and in its second version.
Pratt City Blues was first recorded in Chicago in1926. There’s a pianist, Richard M. Thomas, who deserves the greatest respect because he does nothing to draw attention away from the two he’s accompanying. He knows how good they are so he simply plays a few supportive chords and let’s them do their stuff. The singer is a young woman called Bertha Hill. She’s utterly unlike Bessie Smith; there’s none of the drama that Smith invests in her songs. She’s plain, direct, uninflected. I picture Bertha standing unmoving in front of the microphone, monolithic, rooted, letting the song do its work without embroidery. But there is embroidery, and what embroidery! It comes from a young man called Louis Armstrong. He plays cornet, not trumpet, and uses the lightness of the instrument to dance around the unflinching voice, filigree cascades of notes weaving in and out, pointing up the singer’s simplicity and majesty and the solemnity of the song. And then in under three minutes it’s over. And has to be played again. And again. Until I skip intervening tracks to play… the second version.
The singer is always credited as Bertha ‘Chippie’ Hill and this interpolated nickname is an additional, writer’s reason for my interest in her, because ‘chippie’ was a word which in Afro-American culture of the time had a sliding scale of meaning. At the lighter end it meant simply a young girl who was out for fun, with possibly but not necessarily a sexual content to the fun. But ‘chippie’ could also mean a girl who would, for an inducement perhaps, put out if requested. And then moving up the scale to the heavier end ‘chippie’ meant , quite unequivocally, a hooker, a streetwalker.
Why this nickname? Bertha was barely out of her teens when she started recording and the most likely explanation seems to me a P.R. exercise to exploit her youth, a nudge, nudge, wink, wink idea – hey, this singer is a fun girl, sure, but maybe, maybe she’s also been, or perhaps still is, a hooker. Other songs she recorded at the time build on this sexual hint. Sport Model Mama for example has lyrics in which she compares herself to an expensive car, ‘out on the rack for pay’ and adds ‘you can come down and buy me.’
Pratt City Blues is equally unequivocal: ‘You walk Sandusky with your head hung low.’ It’s undoubtedly a street-walker’s song, but it has none of the brazen assertiveness of Sport Model Mama. It’s the song of a defeated woman, honest, retaining dignity but saturated with the sad reality of the street-walker’s life. It’s beautiful but it reinforces the idea that the singer is, or has been, a hooker. Did Bertha approve of this exploitation of her youth? I doubt it.
I’d first heard Pratt City Blues on a compilation record produced by Paul Oliver. It was later that trawling through the Document Records site, a treasure trove of blues, spirituals, ‘race’ records and other popular and in their time largely ignored musical forms, I came across a CD of Bertha ‘Chippie’ Hill, 1925 to 1929, the tracks in order of recording. Number 10 on the playlist is Pratt City Blues. Number 24 on the playlist, the last one, is… Pratt City Blues.
At first I hated it; it was so totally unexpected, a complete reversal of the first. It’s anything but solemn and statuesque, it’s up-tempo, with a jump-style pianist, unidentified but possibly Georgia Tom, a banjoist, a string bass player with a lively slap style, probably Bill Johnson, and vocal interjections from the vaudeville entertainer and drag artist Frankie ‘Half-pint’ Jaxon. And then as I played it again and again I began to like it, and then to love it, and at last to understand it. The music bounces, full of life, of joie de vivre, of the sheer fun of being alive and enjoying yourself. The result is as unequivocal as the first version, but the message this time is: I’m a young girl out for fun. Yes, the ‘head hung low’ line is still there but it’s undercut by Jaxon’s shout of ‘let it hang!’ It’s now no more than a temporary blip, a momentary querying of the new interpretation, to be considered and then dismissed. This version of Pratt City Blues is in short Bertha reclaiming herself, rejecting the P.R. nudge, announcing that this, and only this, is the reality of who and what she is. What’s more the recording marks the end of her career, and so acts as a deliberate full stop. She produces nothing more until 1946 when she emerges briefly to record three low-key tracks accompanied by the pianist Montana Taylor and two accompanied by another pianist, ‘Mr. Freddie’ Shayne. What scanty biographical details I’ve come across tell me no more than that in the interim she raised a family and continued to sing in various clubs in Chicago and New York. A photograph of her in the 1940’s club shows an unglamorous middle-aged woman with rimless glasses. I find it beautiful. She died in a road accident in 1950.
Words shift with context. This is what for me helps to make the business of writing so exhilarating and so difficult. The two versions of Pratt City Blues exemplify this. They also warn against making easy assumptions. Slogans are always worth a measure of distrust.

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