Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Barbara Dane: I'm On My Way

When I first heard Barbara Dane, I hadn’t seen her photo. I supposed that she was like most female blues artists of the late 50s and early 60s: African-American, a little older, and more matronly in appearance. I was surprised to learn that she was blonde, blue-eyed, 33 years old, and, er, not matronly like most of best known female blues artists of the era.


Ebony observed in 1959, “As the rich white spotlight sweeps over the face with the fresh-scrubbed look, the girl seems startlingly blonde, especially when that powerful dusky alto voice begins to moan of trouble, two-timing men, and freedom. She is singing the blues—just as Bessie Smith sung them, and Mama Yancey and Lizzie Miles and Ma Rainey. But, she is white.”

Looking at her older photos, it was obvious that her “startlingly” blonde hair came from a bottle, but it was fitting with her “fresh-scrubbed” complexion. Bottle or not – who cares? Her voice, however, is amazing – pure, unadulterated, and classy. She’s still around and still singing at the age of 88.


My introduction to Ms. Dane was her 1960 recording on Trey Records of “I’m On My Way.” Produced by Lee Hazelwood, this was her only output on this fledgling label that released less than 20 singles. Her record was the fifteenth of the series and has of late been a popular Northern Soul classic in England.

Although her rendering of “I’m On My Way” is a secular twist of the field holler that turned spiritual. This same song became an old time country gospel song at the hands of The Carter Family in 1934. Although a traditional song at the time of the Carter recording, A.P. Carter took the writing credit and Ralph Peer owned the publishing rights. The original author is unknown and Barbara Dane did the honorable thing – she only claimed the arrangement of this traditional spiritual.


Two years after the Trey release, Capitol Records issued an updated version of the song as the title cut for her LP, EP, and Seeburg Series’ 7 inch-33 1/3 RPM for jukebox play. All three releases were named as “On My Way.” The newer version moved the key from Gm to Am, had a different horn arrangement, and included backup vocals by the Andrews Gospel Signers. The newer version also featured Rocco Wilson on congas and is a slightly faster than her original.


While her original recording is sparse by comparison, I prefer it to the 1962 release of the same song. I am providing both versions as comparison. See what you think.

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