Gladys Bentley: Worried Blues

Written by Elliott Hurwitt

Music Historian

In category: Song of the Day

Published November 5, 2018

As we prepare for W. C. Handy & the Birth of the Blues with program consultant Elliott Hurwitt, we revisit his first week hosting Song of the Day. This song was originally posted on October 26, 2015.

Gladys Bentley (ca. 1907-1960) was one of the biggest stars of African-American entertainment in the 1920s, along with Florence Mills, Ethel Waters, Josephine Baker among female stars at her level, and her stardom lasted through the 1930s. She was typically seen in a white tuxedo, and never, at least in public, as a woman.  Bentley is generally cited as among the most openly gay major figures of the Harlem Renaissance.  In 1958 she made a memorable appearance on “You Bet Your Life,” and by that point late in her career she was appearing as a woman, and is accompanied by a Nigerian man, who eventually dances to her fine rendition of “Them There Eyes,” joined by host Groucho Marx.

Bentley’s 1928 version of “Worried Blues” is unrelated to other more famous “country blues” songs by that title in the period, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she wrote it. The lyrics are a good example of the complaint-about-a-man genre, with a memorably funny final line.  Here Bentley takes on all three roles, singer, instrumental soloist, and pianist, as on the famous records made by such blues queens as Bessie Smith, who memorably had Louis Armstrong playing cornet obligato fills between Smith’s voice. On “Worried Blues,” Bentley is her own band, scatting spare, bluesy, growled riffs.  While some sources have claimed the pianist is songwriter J.C. Johnson, I suspect the fine keyboard work here is also by Ms. Bentley, who shows in 1958 she would have been more than up to it.

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Elliott Hurwitt is a music historian with a background in classical music, now specializing in African-American music of the 1890s-1940s. His publications on W.C. Handy include the Dover edition (2012) of Handy’s seminal 1926 Blues, An Anthology, for which Elliott wrote a new introduction and re-edited the song selections to include songs that had come and gone between the 1926 version, Handy’s revised edition (1949) and the versions following his death (1972/1990).  Elliott also added historically important blues from 1912-1919 by Handy’s friends and rivals for the first time in the Anthology.  Elliott won the Barry Brook Dissertation Prize when he got his PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center. He has appeared on NPR and Public Radio International, and is chief historical adviser on the new documentary Mister Handy’s Blues.  Elliott lives in New York City with his wife Elizabeth, Development Director of Music From Copland House.

Elliott is serving as the program consultant on the upcoming NYFOS program W. C. Handy & the Birth of the Blues on November 14, 2018 at Merkin Hall in NYC. Get your tickets today!


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