Lea Gilmore Fuses the Blues Agony and Ecstasy
Take, for example, her recent performance at the Creative Alliance’s fundraising dinner in June. Onstage with Sangmele, her Baltimore blues combo, she launches into Alberta Hunter’s classic “Two-Fisted Double-Jointed Rough and Ready Man,” a smoky, seductive lounge number. Gilmore starts off getting slinky, gyrating and shaking her hips. There’s a line in the song where she tells her man what she feels inside “when you take off all my clothes,” but when it comes around a second time, Gilmore’s gospel sensibilities get the better of her. She sings, “When you, mm-hmm,” and throws up her hands and closes her eyes instead. She is suddenly spiritual, lost in the song.
Sangmele (French Creole for “mixed blood”) is Gilmore’s project with bassist Henry Reiff and guitarist Walt Michael, a longtime friend and collaborator who also organizes the just-wrapped-up Common Ground on the Hill festival at McDaniel College in Westminster. At the festival, Gilmore taught singing classes and lectured on women in the blues. The Common Ground Lea Gilmore is the flirty Lea Gilmore: a disarmingly friendly woman with a set of buttery, suggestive pipes that strongly recall Etta James, and who is devoted to the study of the foremothers of the sweet and lowdown.
“As a performer, I understand the blues on another level,” she says of her work as a teacher and student of roots-music history. “It’s not just taking a look at the lives of these historic blues women. I am one of those women. My connection with Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, or Dinah Washington is very important to me. The same things they sing about are still apropos. When Mamie Smith is singing about having the crazy blues because she’s so in love with this guy—how is that anything new?”
But her devotion to her predecessors is more than just a faddish retro treatment of the blues. It started as and continues to be a serious interest for Gilmore, a Morgan State University political science/economics grad who says that at one point in her üife she was a “career intern” for people such as Kweisi Mfume and Barbara Mikulski and seriously considering a career in politics. In 1998 she helped design “Lea Gilmore’s It’s a Girl Thang,” a web site (www.bluesland.net/thang) that documents the life stories of famous women in the blues. Her writing, which she researched extensively at archives in Chicago and at the University of Mississippi, won the site the a 2003 Keeping the Blues Alive award, in the internet category, from the Blues Foundation.
“I didn’t want this to be a big scholarly treatise,” she says. “I want even someone who is 15, who has an interest in blues music and in feminism, to come across the site and be able to learn from it.”
Lately, Gilmore has been working on a book about women in the blues. (“I’ll be working on it until I’m 900,” she says. “Right now I’m 800.”) The book is a collection of interviews with blues women worldwide, including Boston’s Toni Lynn Washington and Gaye Adegbalola of Fredericksburg, Va. Gilmore says she wants to figure out “why they all do what they do.”
The other Lea Gilmore—the one who can’t escape altruistic nature—is a moving gospel singer. She has spent most of her life fighting for various social justice causes, many of them dealing with women’s and minority rights. She now does a lot of work with Indian Health Service, an organization that seeks to make clinics on Native American reservations compliant with federal health laws, and she is the principle of the Gilmore Group, which does consulting for nonprofits.
And she uses her grass-roots background as a platform from which she spreads goodwill through her singing. Gospel has led her all around the world, to Africa and Europe, and to her most unusual role—as Baltimore’s unofficial ambassador to Belgium for African-American music. This side of Lea Gilmore is a relatively recent development. “It wasn’t until last year that I would answer the question ‘What do you do for a living?’ with ‘I’m a singer,’” Gilmore says.
The Belgium thing all started nine years ago, when she was communicating with various blues enthusiasts on an internet list-serv, doing research for her web site. Almost by accident, she ran in to Marc Borms, a blues fan from Belgium who listened to the same gospel acts as she did, including the Mississippi Mass Choir and James Cleveland. When on vacation in Europe she met up with Borms, and he asked her to sing at his church, a small Catholic parish in Aalst. A promoter saw her show, and within a year she was doing regular performances in Europe.
In 2004, the Damien Foundation, which is named for a Belgian Catholic missionary who spent his ministry in a Hawaiian leper colony, brought together dozens of church choirs across Belgium. And under Gilmore’s tutelage, they learned a set of gospel songs that were recorded as Gospels for Damien.
Gilmore laughs at the memory of teaching 2,000 Francophones how to sing spirituals, but then turns serious. Once, a man approached her after a performance and told her that he had just lost his wife, and that this was the first time he had left his house since then. He told Gilmore that her rendition of “Precious Lord” had changed his life.
“When I sing in Europe, often people don’t understand, because they don’t speak English,” she says. “[But] now that crosses cultures. For me, gospel music has become a bigger calling. I think we all have our ministries, but gospel music is such a compelling ministry, because souls don’t come in cultures.”
In August, Gilmore returns to Europe to record the second Gospels for Damien record, and to sing at the Liege Jazz Festival in Belgium. In September, she splits time between studios in Belgium and the Netherlands, recording a new blues album, tentatively titled I’d Like to Say Hello.
The album will be mostly her own originals, including the charming “I’d Like to Say Hello (But My Man Is Here Tonight),” in which the narrator ponders infidelity: “I’d like to come on over and have a little drink/ But my man doesn’t let me breathe.” Another original track from the new record, the upbeat boogie-woogie “Kiss Me Baby,” is a similarly Mamie Smith-flirty love letter. “Lean closer honey, let me whisper in your ear,” she sings. “Don’t want no one to know what I plan to do to you/ but right now honey you can thrill me through and through.”
It’s the same old Gilmore—highlighting her vocal split personality and her incredible versatility. And for Gilmore it’s all the same. Her attraction to and affinity for singing both blues and gospel is a mystery even to her, and one that she enjoys exploring. And for now, she sees these same feelings of conflict, mystery, and passion in the blues women she interviews for her book, the musicians she meets on the road, and anyone who identifies with her music. “There’s this commonality that there’s a mystery to it all,” she says. “We don’t know why we sing the blues, we just do it.”
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