Bettye LaVette began her recording career in the ’60s, and though her comeback began with her 2003 album A Woman Like Me, she really put herself back on the map with her stunningly good 2005 album I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise, featuring songs written by Fiona Apple, Sinead O’Connor, Lucinda Williams and other women.
Providing a kind of bookend to that album, now, is her new Blackbirds, featuring songs associated with Black female singers such as Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Ruth Brown, Nina Simone and Nancy Wilson. LaVette has said that the concept of the album was “the bridge I came across on,” meaning a tribute to the women who paved the way for her as an artist.
Yet as on I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise and the other albums that LaVette, who lives in West Orange, has released since then — including Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook (songs by Elton John, The Who, The Beatles and others) and her Dylan album Things Have Changed — she never mimics the writer or the artist the song is associated with. Everything comes across as an intensely personal statement.
The production, by Steve Jordan (who also plays drums), underscores the point. The instrumentation is sparse, with every nuance of every note as clearly audible as the sharply sketched twists of LaVette’s singing. LaVette and her supporting cast don’t just deliver these songs; they seem to linger over every second of them. You’ll notice new subtleties with every listen.
LaVette recorded this album in November and was originally planning to release it in early May, the same month she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. But the release was delayed because of the pandemic. The murder of George Floyd in late May, the protests that followed and the recent shooting of Jacob Blake (among other similar incidents) make the wordless cries that end LaVette’s powerful rendition of the protest song “Strange Fruit” (listen below) even more devastating that they would have been at another time.
There is one song here that is not written by or associated with a woman: “Blackbird,” written by Paul McCartney (though credited to Lennon & McCartney) and recorded solo, by him, for The Beatles’ White Album.
As most Beatles fans know, “bird” is British slang for a young woman, and McCartney has said that he wrote the song in reaction to the United States’ Civil Rights movement of the time, envisioning a young Black woman escaping oppression. LaVette (listen below) changes the lyrics to first-person singular: “I took my broken wings and learned how to fly … all of my life, I have waited for this moment to arise,” and so on.)
She sounds weary, but proud and empowered. I like to think that this is how McCartney always wanted the song to sound. It just took someone who has lived the life LaVette has led, to bring out that essence.
Here is the album’s songs, and the artists they are associated with:
“I Hold No Grudge” (Nina Simone)
“One More Song” (Sharon Robinson)
“Blues for the Weepers” (Della Reese)
“Book of Lies” (Ruth Brown)
“Romance in the Dark” (Lil Green)
“Drinking Again” (Dinah Washington)
“Strange Fruit” (Billie Holiday)
“Save Your Love for Me” (Nancy Wilson)
“Blackbird” (The Beatles)
For more on LaVette and “Blackbirds,” visit bettyelavette.com.
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