The Hearing Eye: Jazz & Blues Influences in African American Visual Art

By Graham Lock; David Murray | Go to book overview

TWO
Blues on the Brush: Rose Piper’s Blues and Negro
Folk Songs Paintings of the 1940s

Graham Lock

One evening in 1926, Bessie Smith’s traveling tent show company arrived in a little town near Cincinnati and, because the streets were flooded, had to be transported by boat to their lodgings above an undertaker’s parlor. This inauspicious event engendered three remarkable works of art. First, Smith wrote “Backwater Blues” and, with the help of James P. Johnson on piano, turned it into one of her finest recordings.1 When, by chance, the disc’s release coincided with the terrible Mississippi floods of 1927, the song gave moving voice to the sufferings of more than half a million displaced people along the delta. Then, marking its status in the black community, Sterling Brown featured the song in his “Ma Rainey,” widely regarded as the definitive blues-related poem of the twentieth century.2 Finally, nearly two decades later, a young painter named Rose Piper, who had just bought the Smith recording on Sterling Brown’s recommendation, was inspired to make Back Water, a canvas of haunting emotional power.

However, while Smith’s performance and Brown’s poem are now rightly acknowledged as great art, Piper’s work has, for a variety of reasons, remained largely overlooked by art critics and little known to the wider public.3 This is all the more regrettable because, as well as Back Water, she made a number of other canvases in response to recordings by classic blueswomen such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith that include some outstanding examples of early semi-abstract expressionism. They may also be the first paintings directly inspired by blues records.4 So I want here to take a closer look at Piper’s art and to pursue what I think is a key question: to what extent did the blues she heard prompt and guide her experiments with abstraction?

First, a little background.5 Piper was born Rose Theodora Sams in New York City on 7 October 1917.6 She got her BA (majoring in art, minoring in ge-

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