It was a hot, humid evening when we took our seats Friday in the downtown storefront on Forsyth Street, which serves as the main performance space at Eyedrum. I found a folding chair as close as possible to the large fan blowing through the entranceway from the room next door. “It pulls a little bit of the air conditioning from upstairs and pushes it in here,” said Priscilla Smith, Eyedrum’s executive director.
In front of us, stage left, Three Way Mirror — Jeff Crompton on alto sax, Bill Pritchard on sousaphone, and YaYa Brown on percussion — readied their instruments. To the right, Laurie Perry Vaughen stood poised at a music stand upon which were arranged her poems on sheets of paper.
The music started with a medium tempo, bluesy ramble. A couple of bars in, perfectly timed on the downbeat, Vaughen intoned into the microphone:
Even here, the remnant of her life
could fit into the brown Samsonite,
the context tucked behind the Victrola.
The beaded sweep of a black dress,
the frayed fabric flowers at her waist,
a comb, a straightening iron.
The “her” in Vaughen’s poem is Bessie Smith, the legendary blues singer whose tumultuous career began in the early 1900s when, as a motherless child, she busked for pennies on the streets of the poet’s hometown, Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Triggered by a visit to the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, Vaughen penned “At the Bessie Smith Hall,” a rumination on “our Blues Empress born to a Baptist preacher” who blazed the trail for Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin and Queen Latifah; and whose music, when originally broadcast “along the unseen airways,” transcended racially motivated restrictions.
The reading’s title work, “Billie Holiday on the Radio,” offered scenes and observations inspired by the sculpture of Whitfield Lovell, particularly a piece created from 20 radios, which patrons can touch and tune to hear “Lady Day” singing.
The radios served as a poignant touchstone for Vaughen. Her father was a radio repairman and locally renowned country singer-songwriter who performed and recorded with Vaughen’s mother, a talented singer, before both parents passed away at too young an age.
We can still recall, a time
before radios were embedded
Things were merely heard,
herded about by sound, by notes
that swayed in our minds
like a woman in heels
at a compromise…
Accompanied by Three Way Mirror’s performance of Crompton’s exquisitely evocative score, Vaughen herded about the audience using sharply honed shards of narrative stories, dreamscape snapshots, and intimate and historical character studies. The overall effect of the 15 works, according to the poet, was designed to “engage the listener in exploring tensions and technologies that continue to change the consciousness of the South.”
Judging by the audience’s enthusiastic response, Vaughen’s “Billie Holiday on the Radio” could hardly have succeeded in engaging more thoroughly and enjoyably than it did.