Cox's Career Gets Underway
Ida Cox's first records for Paramount, "Graveyard Dream Blues" and "Weary Way Blues," were recorded in the summer of 1923. In seven years, she recorded 78 songs. Bearing in mind that Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey were highly in vogue, Paramount promoted Cox as the "Uncrowned Queen of the Blues."
An astute businesswoman, Cox served as her own manager and producer, and was a prolific songwriter. She addressed many of the relevant issues affecting her core audience, the impoverished, oppressed black women who felt restrained by the yoke of inequality, damned by racial injustices and hopelessly trapped with little with which to aspire.
Of course, no one ever said the blues are pretty! Many of her songs contained death themes, including "Black Crepe Blues," "Bone Orchard Blues," "Cemetery Blues," "Coffin Blues," "Cold Black Ground Blues," "Death Letter Blues," "Graveyard Bound Blues" and "Marble Stone Blues."
Typical of that era, several Cox songs were blatantly risque ("Handy Man" and "One Hour Mama") while others were related to geographical locations including "Memphis Tennessee," "The West Texas Blues," "Birmingham Blues," "Pensacola Blues" and "Muscle Shoals Blues."
As with today's ever-changing music trends and short-lived careers, the popularity of blues waned with the beginning of the 'Big Band' craze, and Cox's heyday was apparently over following the Depression years. Or was it?
From Toccoa to Carnegie Hall
On December 23, 1938, John Hammond, a white record producer, indelibly made music history with his presentation of From Spirituals to Swing---an unprecedented event which featured a remarkably diverse set (blues, jazz, gospel, etc.) performed by some of the most gifted black artists of the times before an enthusiastic, integrated audience. The sold-out concert was held at a prestigious venue (you might have heard of it!) located on New York's Seventh Avenue and 57th Street.
Again, in 1939, the second and final From Spirituals to Swing concert familiarized its attendees with some future legends in the making. Many of the fans were perhaps only beginning to understand and appreciate black music as an art form, and the reintroduction of an original, female blues star of the 1920s must have surely been an evening highlight as she sang "Lowdown Dirty Shame" and " 'Fore Day Creep" with fervor, resonance and the authenticity of a diva. Ida Cox had made it all the way to Carnegie Hall!
The End of the Beginning
With the emergence of more contemporary, fancy-picking, blues guitarists, a diminished interest in '20s style music and her suffering of a stroke, Cox opted to forsake the blues altogether. She eventually moved to Knoxville in 1949 where she assumed a low profile and lived out the last years of her life with her daughter, Helen Goode, in a modest residence on Louise Avenue.
Having renewed her faith in God, Cox's performances were strictly limited to singing in the Patton Street Church of God choir. Her fellow choir members were probably unaware of who she truly was!
While Ida Cox was living contently without fanfare, Chris Albertson at Riverside Records (label home of Cannonball Adderley and Thelonious Monk) in New York persuaded company owners Bill Grauer and Orrin Keepnews to permit him to track down Cox in an attempt to convince her to record an album. At the airport prior to his flight's departure, Albertson telephoned the retired blues singer's old friend, John Hammond, an executive at Columbia Records. Hammond provided Albertson with Cox's contact information, and the trip to Knoxville proved worthwhile, to say the least.
Ida Cox was eventually swayed to come to New York to record what would be her final project. Blues for Rampart Street, produced by Albertson and recorded in April 1961 at Plaza Sound Studios atop New York's famed Radio City Music Hall, included an all-star band featuring saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and trumpeteer Roy Eldridge.
Along about the same time arrangements were being made for Cox to record in New York, Knoxville television and radio announcer Lynn Westergaard (son of radio personality R. B. "Dick" Westergaard) learned from his friend, musician Harry Nides, that Ida Cox was living just minutes away in East Knoxville. Westergaard, 24, met Cox, recorded an interview with her and became quite the devotee. He traveled to New York, and was allowed to be present during the recording sessions. "She did several of the selections on the first take," Westergaard recalls.
While in New York, Ida Cox was a main attraction, even appearing on Merv Griffin's NBC quiz show, Play Your Hunch. The blindfolded contestants were unsuccessful in guessing who was belting out "Put Your Arms Around Me, Honey, Hold Me Tight."
Indeed, a star had come to town and anything less than celebrity treatment would have been insulting.
Whitney Balliett, a reporter for The New Yorker, wrote, "Guess who was in and out of town last week, and after a 20-year absence, at that!" During Balliet's interview with the singer in her room at the Paramount Hotel, Cox doused the flames of speculation that her recording career might rebound by clearly stating, "I mean to do the best that I can. But then I'm going back home---whoom, like that."
In other interviews, Cox would later express some concerns over her last recording, even indicating she prayed for God's forgiveness if her momentary return to blues was a sin.
Ida Cox Dies at 71
Succumbing to cancer, her life came to an end on Friday, November 10, 1967 at 11:47 p.m. at Knoxville's Baptist Hospital. "I was with Ida just a couple of days before she died," says Westergaard (now a resident of Atlanta) who, four decades later, fondly reminisces about the friendship he was privliged to share with the blues legend.
Her Music Lives On
Certainly some of the sides Ida Cox recorded are vibrant in the contemporary music scene including her most famous composition, "Wild Women Don't Have the Blues," which has become the signature song for Atlanta R&B singer, Francine Reed.
Known for her distinctive, gritty, soulful delivery, Reed could have given those early barrel-house mamas a run for their money! Needless to say, she excels in acquainting audiences with the blues of yesterday through her own interpretations, regularly touring with Curb/Lost Highway recording artist, Lyle Lovett & His Large Band, as well as performing at various Atlanta clubs.
In fact, Lovett's 1999 CD, Live in Texas, features Francine Reed in a roof-raising rendition of Cox's "Wild Women." The boisterous cheers in the crowd are likely coming from Reed's female fans reveling at the notion of living loose and easy, essentially trampling over any socially ingrained inhibitions. One has to wonder how Ida Cox fans reacted to this song seven decades ago!
With All Due Respect . . .
It is doubtful that most Toccoans were aware of Ida Cox's appearance at Carnegie Hall in 1939. Considering the attitudes of the day, most probably wouldn't have cared!
Yet, in the middle of it all, a talented, ambitious "colored" girl from a small North Georgia town set out to pursue a better life despite the limitations and hardships she would inevitably face.
Rising to national prominence in her field, Ida Cox was both a pioneer and icon, by all accounts, securing a significant place in America's rich and illustrious musical past.
However, some students of roots music contend that artists such as Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Ida Cox have been slighted in recent blues documentaries, including Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues---A Musical Journey on PBS, in which a great deal of emphasis was placed on the male guitarists from the Mississippi Delta.
Joseph Johnson, Curator of Music & Popular Culture at the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in Macon, concurs. "These female preachers of the blues have not received the credit and attention they deserve for putting blues on record," he says, adding their careers "were concurrent with all those Delta guys."
A Lesson Worth Learning
Most Georgians today have probably not even heard of Ida Cox---even older members of the African American community. In stark contrast, she is revered by musicologists.
The U. S. Congress had declared 2003 the "Year of the Blues," but little homage was paid to this important blues figure. Perhaps now is a fitting time to re-explore Cox's musical path and discover what makes her story worth remembering.
She triumphed despite social hurdles, racial barriers and the Great Depression.
Somewhere amid the Ida Cox journey echoes a sublime, inspiring theme, pulsating to the infectious groove of a ragtime melody, reassuring a new generation that life can surely be pursued to the fullest extent given the opportunities accessible today.