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Bongo Boy Blues Artist Sheba The Mississippi Queen’s Book And Blues Album All Together A Perfect Combo Deal.
A Book Review by The Grouch
Available at Bongo Boy Records, LLC
A Real Good Woman by Sheba Makeda Beck.
Firstly, if you have not heard Sheba’s album by the same name I strongly urge you to give it a listen. A case can be made that the book is simply a textual version of the album; the main difference being that on the album Sheba is able to use the bending of notes and her voice to convey emotion whereas in the book she is limited to nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adjectives.
Secondly, this book, unlike many books that were allegedly written by famous musicians (I am thinking here of the book by the drummer who was kicked out of Guns N Roses), is both well written and compelling. The main difference between the two, of course, is the content. Whereas Steven Adler, has very little to say that is beyond the sensationalistic ramblings of a recovering drug addict who spent his height of fame in a stupor, Sheba gets to the heart of what makes her music so rich and powerful. Take, for example, the opening chapter in which she describes growing up in Mississippi in the 1950s.
When I was coming up, they still had a thing about the lighter you were, the better you were treated. I was dark with nappy hair. My twin sister is light-skinned and has what we call very good hair, which means you can get a comb through it.
Think about that quote for a minute. People treated her twin sister better simply because she had lighter skin and hair that could be combed. This, folks, is at the beginning of the book. If that does not give one insight into the inspiration for her blistering brand of Blues I do not know what would.
In the book the reader is given access to some of the most personal and painful details of Sheba’s life. Her mother had her first child when she was 14 years old. Her mother had been sexually abused by a family friend. This had a profound effect on Sheba as she recalls when she wrote “At times I went to hug her, and she pulled away...” We also learn that when Sheba’s mother was 18 she seduced another woman’s husband with the result being Sheba and her twin sister. The man never acknowledged that Sheba was his daughter.
Sheba’s childhood in Mississippi was one of abject poverty. She lived in a very small house, before moving to a slightly larger one. The only problem was that this larger house was only half of a house, as the other half had been torn down. Eventually, her family was able to ‘upgrade’ to a shotgun house which is so called because the house is very narrow and quite long. Worse than the living conditions, however, was the lack of food. Sheba writes: “Food was something we never had enough of. I remember many nights going to bed hungry.”
How can anyone read this and not feel for this little girl?
Of her time in Mississippi Sheba has this to say:
There is one thing that kept us going, and that was singing. We would start to sing, and it seemed like everything just went away. The heat from that big yellow sun, the hunger pangs, all of it just went away. This is where the soul of my music came from— those cotton fields of Mississippi. I didn’t get it from school books, or from someone teaching me; it came from within. Even when we were not in the fields singing, we were in church or on the porch late evenings singing.
Sheba’s book not only gives insight into what it was like to grow up poor and black in the Old South, but she also answers some fundamental questions about a style of music that changed the world.
I have always wondered why so many great singers came out of the Delta. I found out that during slavery, all kinds of African slaves from many different tribes were brought here, and many of them had different kinds of talents. What was in the soul was a song they didn’t learn, it was a part of them—and that’s where America’s first music came from, the souls of the slaves.
While the fact that the Blues came from an adaptation of African music that was sung by the slaves is common knowledge, what I did not know was that the reason so many of the ancient, first-generation Blues musicians seem to have played off beat is that “…the blues had no definite beat. In fact, during slavery, the slaves were not allowed to have drums because then they could communicate with each other. So, anything that a slave could beat on was taken away.”
Ultimately this is a book about personal growth. The growth of a little girl born into terrible circumstances who grows up and experiences huge amounts of pain and disappointment before eventually making peace with herself and her Creator.
When explaining the Blues, Sheba has this to say:
Life is what makes a good blues singer. Blues is about life and the things that life takes you through. It’s about bad times, good times, loving someone and not being loved back. That’s why people don’t accept a young person singing the blues—they feel they haven’t really lived it. Someone said, “The blues is easy to play but hard to feel.” The blues would be best described as stories, about people highlighting their feelings in music, the good and bad. The blues is our trail of tears, blood, and sweat coming from the dry bones of those who died for us.
So, folks, what is the bottom line? If you like the Blues, this book is required reading. Even if you are not into this type of music, you are sure to find the story of Sheba’s life enthralling. This is the kind of book one reads in one sitting. Once you start, you will not be able to put it down. My suggestion is that you do as I did and listen to the album while you are reading.
Record Label: Bongo Boy Records,LLC