Harlem Wisdom in a Wild Woman's Blues: The Cool Intellect of Ida Cox

Article excerpt

There is a story circulating about Ida Cox that addresses Ms. Cox's 1934 billing as "The Sepia Mae West" at the newly re-opened Apollo. This story, which may very possibly be apocryphal, explains why this title might have gone deeper than a marketing ploy exploiting the white singer's significant celebrity at the time. It seems that, rather than Ida Cox being a "Sepia Mae West" it was actually the other way around: Mae West was a pale imitation of Ida Cox, because Ida had taught her those dangerous and sexy moves. (2) Ms. Cox gave Chris Albertson another reason for the pseudonym that he recounted in his biography, Bessie. She said that her billing as "The Sepia Mae West" kept her identity secret from the possible venom of Bessie Smith, who never appreciated sharing her marquis with any other performer and particularly not with Ida Cox.

Whether or not her tutelage of Mae West actually took place, those of us who never witnessed Ida Cox perform might gain some sense of the power of her performance (if we kick Mae West's considerably powerful performance up a notch) and why she was often billed, "The Uncrowned Queen of the Blues." Although Ms. Ida's business was Chicago based, she carried a personal and professional connection to New York that was unquestionable. This connection went beyond her periods of performance in New York. (3) Ida Cox's style--her glamour, her sense of self-possession, her independence, her cool and, most tellingly, her determination to "put you wise"--took New York (or, more specifically, Harlem) to the rest of the country.

    As the curtain lifted, the house orchestra, against a background of
  black hanging, held the full stage. The saxophone began to moan, the
  drummer tossed his sticks. One was transported involuntarily ... to a
  Harlem cabaret ... [as] the orchestra struck up a slower ... still
  more mournful strain.
    The hangings parted and a great brown woman emerged, stunning in
  white satin, studded with rhinestones. Her face was beautiful, with
  the rich, ripe beauty of southern darkness, a deep bronze brown ...
  She walked to the footlights; then as the accompaniment of the
  wailing, muted brasses, the monotonous African beat ... the dromedary
  glide of Jesse Crump ... fingers over the ... keys, she began her
  strange rites in "a voice full of moanin' and prayin' and
  sufferin'" ... the singer swaying slightly to the rhythm ... (4)

Historian Daphne Duval Harrison says of Cox, "It was this sense of self, understanding of her art, and awareness of her audiences' needs and desires that propelled Cox to such a high level of appreciation.... Audiences understood that Cox was able to take the substance of their pain, elevate it and transform it to match their feelings." (5) Clearly, Ida Cox carried more than style to her audiences around the country: although meaningful in its own right, her style also functioned as a delivery system for counsel of sharp and serious substance. This article is dedicated to the intellectual substance at the core of her counsel. (6) And the delivery system for that counsel was the blues.

Let us, at this moment, take on a question that may run as a current underneath a discussion of the blues in a book on intellectual activity: why should a chapter on Blueswomen be included in a series of articles on "Street Scholars and Stepladder Radicals?" Aren't the Blues emotional rather than intellectual, and the women that sing them not intellectual thinkers but embodied actors invoking visceral reaction instead of considered response? Can thinking and feeling go on in the same space? What do ordinary people know of intellectual process? And even when they know, what do they care? This special issue of Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, "Street Scholars and Stepladder Radicals: Self-Trained Black Historians and the New York Experience, 1890-1965," offers a fundamental challenge to the supposition that everyday people live their lives disconnected from issues of intellect. …