Lucy Ferriss


I've called this blog "Travelin' Thoughts" in the past, because I kept it mostly as a journal to record impressions of new places and cultures. But in a way, it's still a place for traveling thoughts--ideas that move through and past me, and out into the world. Some of these are literary, some just about life. It's a good place to open up the conversation, and I welcome your thoughts and comments.

Josephine Baker Encore!

February 15, 2018

A quick entry on our adventure last night, with Bonnie Krueger & Thomas Bass, old friends and colleagues from my days at Hamilton College. We went together to the Bal Blomet, formerly the Bal Nègre, to listen to a Josephine Baker reprise. The timing for me was interesting, because I've been wrestling, in the class I'm teaching on American writers between the world wars in Paris, with the phenomenon of what's known as Negrophilia. (There's a fascinating book on it, by Jamaican art historian Petrine Archer-Straw, with fabulous photos.) The class also went last week, to a peculiar "Dada Afrique" exhibit at the Orangerie, which turned out to be, not Dadaist art by Africans, but art by Dadaists who were fascinated by "the primitive" and all things Negro. Josephine Baker fits into this confluence of history and art as a hugely gifted performer who escaped my home town of St. Louis for France, where she took advantage not only of the greater freedoms for her in Paris, but also of the public's fetishizing of her black body, her "primitive" movements, her affinity with nature, etc. As she became more successful -- she owned her own club by the time she was in her mid-20s -- she shed much of the faux primitivity and became a glam queen and movie star. She also helped the Resistance in WWII, adopted a huge passel of orphans, and in general lived a rich and full life. It seems she let the essential racism of the "Western gaze" just roll right off her.

The performance at the Bal Blomet didn't really bring Baker back to life. The singer, a lovely and highly trained vocalist, appeared in a red sequin gown, not a skirt of bananas. In fact, as she and her wildly talented band began their set, I thought at first that we were all more prudish than they were in the 1920s; we'd have been shocked by a nudie performance at this club. (If you want an idea of it, check out this YouTube video of Baker from 1925.) Then I thought, no, it's not that we're easily shocked; it's that we're here to see and hear the performance, not to gawk at anyone's body. (Though the singer did have lovely shoulders, and when she lifted her arms she put me in mind of the model for the charcoal sketch I made in my drawing class on Tuesday evening. Here it is.) The songs themselves were golden oldies, ranging from Baker's hit tune "J'ai Deux Amours" to Piaf's "La Vie en Rose" to Gershwin's "Summertime" and "I Could Have Danced" from My Fair Lady. The audience gobbled it all up. And really, the arrangements were so well done--every now and then, the musicians left off their instruments to accompany her in barbershop quartet style--and her voice so plangent, I found tears in my eyes. The clarinetist was particularly spectacular -- and like most jazz musicians, you couldn't tell by looking at him; he has the air of a high school chemistry teacher. But he held those long notes till they broke your heart. J'ai deux amours, indeed.

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