Symposium highlights women in the blues
Deitra Farr appears at Dominican University's Blues and the Spirit Symposium.
A Symposium on Race and Gender in the Blues
Blues and the Spirit III, Dominican University, 7900 W. Division St., River Forest
May 18 and 19
$75 registration fee includes two receptions, participation in all sessions and panels, and transportation to and from the Friday and Saturday after-party events and club cover charges
(708) 524-6050 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
For complete schedule see www.dom.edu/blues/index.html
Updated: May 15, 2012 9:36PM
The Supremes made singing look easy and Little Walter made the blues sound so good.
So, little did Deitra Farr
know while watching the The
Supremes on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and listening to her
dad’s Little Walter records as a child growing up in Englewood, just how difficult it would be to establish herself as a singer. A blues singer. A blues singer in Chicago of all places.
But, it was a struggle. It still is. And, not just for her, but for every black female blues singer.
“Over the years women have just been perceived as not that important,” Farr said, adding it wasn’t uncommon for her name to appear at the top of a venue’s marquee, yet she, in the flesh and blood, would go ignored by others who’d want to book her and her band at their venue or party.
“They would always go to one of the guys, especially white guys,” she laughed. “And they’d point them to me. And I’d always say, ‘I wonder why they would go to someone other than me when my name is on the marquee.’ They had made an assumption that I wasn’t in charge. People would ask me if I was dating anybody in the band. It’s just this thing where women can’t be in charge.”
The experiences of women in the blues is a large part of this year’s Blues and the Spirit Symposium, Friday and Saturday, May 18-19, at Dominican University. The theme is race and gender, and the weekend features performances, discussions and presentations by musicians, educators and prominent figures on the Chicago blues scene.
Janice Monti, director of the Blues and the Spirit Initiative and chair of Sociology and Criminology at Dominican University, said this year’s symposium looks at the current state of the blues, which includes the difficulties of female blues artists.
“We’re focusing on racial appropriation and gender representation,” she said. “We’re looking at the contemporary situation for the second and third generation blues musicians, and the kinds of struggles they continue to face, while focusing on the enormous contributions that this music has made and continues to make, and focusing as well on what has happened with this music and the kinds of challenges that the musicians, in particular, face. With respect to that, it’s particularly difficult for women as well as all the African-American musicians at a time when festivals and club bookings are not as strong as they have been.”
The face of the blues is changing with an increasing white presence and blues categories at the Grammys being scaled back. Monti said she wants to be clear that no one is saying whites aren’t allowed to play the blues, but let’s remember where the music comes from.
“There is a kind of collective amnesia,” she said, “that this is black music and that the second and third generations of African-Americans feel that they’re being pushed out, in particular the women.”
Farr, along with other blues women Sharon Lewis, Peaches Staten and Nellie Travis, will participate in a panel discussion, “Ladies Sing the Blues: The Lived Experience of Chicago’s Blues Divas.”
However, those experiences have not all been bad. These artists have had a lot of good times, too. For example, Farr has been able to perform in countries she once only dreamed of, including France, Iceland, Italy, Nepal, Norway, Sweden and many more.
“My blues ancestors would just be tickled over that,” she said.