On Ethel Waters and Zora Neale Hurston

We round out our celebration of Black History Month with an excerpt from Daphne Brooks’s Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound, winner of the PEN Oakland–Josephine Miles Award and a Rolling Stone Best Music Book of the Year. “Vivid, joyful, and heartbreaking in its passionate understanding of soul in all its manifestations,” says Hilton Als, “Liner Notes for the Revolution is itself a new kind of music: propulsive, witty, wise, and true.”

The little women lurk at the very heart of the modern, the place where Zora Neale Hurston and her girl Ethel [Waters] are keeping the beat. And of course, they were friends, that Zora and Ethel. It may have taken some time to meet each other “across the footlights,” as Hurston put it in her memoir, but once they connected through their mutual friend Carl Van Vechten, the bond between this untrained singer and a woman referred to by some as “the Voice of an Era” was strong and intimate. Aesthetically too, they had more in common than one might think. Born in Philadelphia and raised in a multicultural, working-class neighborhood where, as Waters puts it, “whites, blacks, and yellows, were outcasts…together,” she made use of an “elephant memory and gift of mimicry” in school. As feminist blues archivist Rosetta Reitz contends, “It was this magnificent ear and the awareness that there was authority in language, that gave Ethel Waters an edge which she used to empower her life.”

Like Hurston, she mastered the art of multilingual colloquialisms and phrasings, assumed multiple personas in her vocal performances, and finessed the art of deeply performative storytelling as she crafted a distinctly theatrical, vaudevillian style of blues singing that was magnetic and lasting. Only her peer, the passionately adored stage ingenue Florence Mills (whose 1927 premature death rocked Harlem), could match Waters in this regard, having ushered in the 1920s as “the agent of the modern spirit of unmasked feeling.” Of Waters, Hurston would marvel, “She is one of the strangest bundles of people that I have ever met. You can just see the different folks wrapped up in her if you associate with her long. Just like watching an open fire — the color and shape of her personality is never the same twice. She has extraordinary talents which her lack of formal education prevents her from displaying.” Listen to her burning up the scene with her slinky 1926 smash, “Shake That Thing,” and you’ll know what Hurston’s talking about. Dolling out double entendres left and right, Waters shifts personas with the turn of a phrase. She’s the swinging seductress one moment and the cool cultural observer the next. “Now it ain’t no Charleston, ain’t no Pigeon Wing,” she assures,

Nobody has to give you no lessons, to shake that thing
When everybody can shake that thing
Oh, I mean, shake that thing!
I’m gettin’ tired of telling you how to shake that thing!
Oooh, oooh, with this kind of music, who wouldn’t shake that thing?

Ascendant as the queen of Black 1920s vaudeville, Waters knew how to work the drama and suspense in a jook-joint hot number celebrating the joys of carnal movement. Hers is an anthem that condenses the shifting energies of an epoch encapsulating mammoth change: migrated Black peoples spilling into northern cities, bursting with socioeconomic aspiration and artistic ambition, revolting against the norms that had historically sought to violently police their profit as well as their pleasures. In other words, all that “shaking” was evocative of the tumult in Waters’s midst. As Saidiya Hartman points out, she “made music” out of the “noise” all around her in her adopted city of New York, soaking up and translating into her own sonic language “the sounds of life, the loving and fighting and laughter and suffering,” all the while “describ[ing] the deprivation and vitality of cramped living from the inside” of her own Harlem flat.

Both Ethel Waters and Zora Neale Hurston believed that the Black body, that their own kinesthetic bodies, could serve as prodigious and vital instruments in their musical endeavors. While Waters’s massive breakthrough hit “Shake That Thing” (first performed in 1925 at the Plantation Club) would take the sexual energy of the jook (a realm Hurston refers to as the pinnacle of Black theatricality in her 1934 “Characteristics of Negro Expression” essay) to its ludic extreme, Hurston would also put her body to work not only as a narrative device, an instrument to convey big ideas about the dynamism of Black life, but as a form of performative epistemology called on to reference and revivify the cultural and historical memory of the work song archive. And crucial to this epistemology was an emphasis on the beautifully unpredictable idiosyncrasies manifest in her own voice both caught on tape and loudly leaving its imprint on her own indelible, discursive style. Like Hopkins before her, Hurston pursued the preservation and cultivation of voice — but in this case, it was her own rather than a literary character’s that once again revolutionized Black sound writing as well as the relevance, meaning, and value of recording Black women’s vocality.

That Hurston not only theorized the sounds in her scholarship and incorporated them in her folk concerts but also performed them herself makes plain the ways that she embraced the act of singing as an extension of her critical ethnographic work. Zora’s singing traverses the presumptive boundaries between Diana Taylor’s conception of the archive and the repertoire, “the archive of supposedly enduring materials (i.e., texts, documents, buildings, bones) and the so-called ephemeral repertoire of embodied practice / knowledge (i.e., spoken language, dance, sports, ritual).” Zora’s singing intervenes in what she believed to be the so called hegemony of Harlem Renaissance Black concert hall culture with its refined music, sounds that she abhorred for, in her opinion, watering down the voices of the folk.

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