For our final W.C. Handy song of the day we turn to one of his later gems that was a lesser hit, especially at first. “Chantez-les Bas” was composed in 1931, and is the only Handy piece in its genre, a Louisiana-inspired love song. Handy never visited New Orleans, but played many engagements in Baton Rouge and points north and on one occasion, while his band serenaded a young lady by night, a neighbor gently asked them to pipe down, i.e., “Sing ‘Em Low,” in the local patois. The song went nowhere at first, but was picked up in 1940 by swing sensation Artie Shaw, one of the greatest clarinetists of the 1920s-1950s.
The song’s heyday was the mid-late 1950s, when it was selected by Louis Armstrong for his great 1954 all-Handy LP. Eartha Kitt, one of several musical stars in the 1958 Handy biopic “St. Louis Blues,” was assigned this number for the film, and she delivers it in her inimitable slinky style. Kitt, along with co-stars Nat “King” Cole and Pearl Bailey, recorded all-Handy LPs in conjunction with the release of the Handy biopic. All this activity occurred in the year of Handy’s passing from the scene; it was quite a send-off.
I was originally enticed by Eartha Kitt’s quirks and unmistakable timbre, but the more I read and listen, the more I recognize her immense intelligence and depth of interpretation. She was an accomplished polyglot and formidable actress, and though categorized as a “pop” artist in her day, her erudition and singularity render her unrecognizable from most of today’s pop singers.
In an era when black female activists were even more demonized than they are at present, Kitt was a courageous fighter for women’s and civil rights. Early in her career, Kitt advocated for impoverished youth; as her star rose, she continued this work and grew into extremely vocal anti-war activism. At the height of the Vietnam War in 1968, Kitt took the podium at a televised White House luncheon (under the Johnson administration) and spoke candidly against America’s militaristic, racist patriarchy. Ladybird was reduced to tears, and Kitt was shown the door. Conservative America seethed; the CIA branded Kitt a “sadistic nymphomaniac;” and her American career was effectively demolished. She found success in Europe and returned to Broadway in the late 1970s.
“I wanna be evil” comes from That Bad Eartha (first released 1953). The music video (whose origins are not readily apparent) is an essential companion. The song itself is a work of thinly veiled and multifaceted feminism. It opens with a semi-spoken intro depicting the gilded cage of a young starlet’s career, problematizing the cruel irony that a sex symbol still ought to be virginal (per 1950s American mores, and maybe today’s). By continually equating female freedom with “evil,” Kitt encodes the message that there’s something rotten about our society’s double standard for women.
“I wanna be evil” – Eartha Kitt, That Bad Eartha (1954)
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