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A Look Back At The Music Of Abbey Lincoln, Pt. 2

A Blog Supreme contributor Lara Pellegrinelli has interviewed Abbey Lincoln about her life's work on many occasions. She concludes her two-part survey of the late, great vocalist and songwriter's recorded legacy. Part one is here. --Ed.

1961's Straight Ahead would be the last album Lincoln would record for over a decade. She acted in the films Nothing But a Man (1964) and For Love of Ivy (1968), the latter in which she co-starred with Sidney Poitier. Then her life essentially fell apart: She divorced, checked herself into a mental hospital, and eventually returned to Los Angeles, where she lived in an apartment above a garage.

Sensing that her friend could use a change of scenery, South African singer Miriam Makeba brought Lincoln along on a two-month tour of Africa in 1972. The experience proved life-changing.

"I had on an African cloth, but I had made it into a style," Lincoln said. "And I had braided nylon into my hair -- I was coming out of a building with Miriam and another South African woman, and this man asked me, 'Where are you from now?' And I said, 'I'm a citizen in America.' And he said, 'Oh.' That's when I wrote 'People in Me.' They used to tell us we were bastardized here, that we had been raped, that we weren't anything. But that's a lie. He knew I was an African woman. He just didn't know where the hell to put me. 'Where are you from now?'"

From that time forward, Lincoln created a steady stream of songs. Of course, she wasn't the only jazz singer to have been a songwriter. Nina Simone blazed this trail during the time of the Civil Rights Movement, but her production tailed off in the 1970s. Betty Carter also wrote some of her own material, but it was "not about the melody," as she often said, or even the narrative for that matter; Carter's songs functioned primarily as vehicles for improvisation.

She was signed to Gitanes (a French arm of what is now Universal Music Group) by producer Jean-Philippe Allard in 1990, resulting in 10 albums. Released on Verve in the United States, they not only re-established Lincoln as a major talent, but also placed her among a roster of stellar voices, ones critical to the label's revitalization and future directions in jazz singing. Because Lincoln refused to be defined by the words of others, she inspired then-up-and-coming singers like Cassandra Wilson to reevaluate their repertoire, and helped open doors for others to create their own material.

She was not only a singer and songwriter. Lincoln painted, made dolls, sewed her own clothes, acted, wrote a play. She created her own distinctive aesthetic world, drawing on African sensibilities and re-envisioning folk traditions of storytelling within jazz. For example, the album Talking to the Sun, which features saxophonist Steve Coleman, pianist James Weidman, bassist Billy Johnson, drummer Mark Johnson and percussionist Jerry Gonzalez, opens with "The River," a radical re-imagining of the American highway:

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From Lincoln's perspective, women -- the ones "who bring the people," as she liked to say -- are endowed with special powers. They are not objects or victims, but rather the teachers of children, the griots, the "ones who tell us where we came from." Her message of female empowerment has no equivalents among the standards. "I Got Thunder (And It Rings)" draws on the Yoruba thunder god Xango: "I'm a woman hard to handle / If you need to handle things / Better run when I start comin' / I got thunder and it rings."

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Lincoln's songs tend toward allegory. They are also preoccupied with spirituality: God, ghosts, ancestors. The I Ching is the "magic book" that provides the source for the advice in "Throw It Away," but the song also recalls the period of Lincoln's life when she had disposed of her marriage, and thought she had disposed of her career.

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Lincoln embraced the human condition as one of perfect imperfection. The "Wholly Earth" is not only holy, but "full of cracks and holes like me," Lincoln told me.

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Personally, she was uncompromising. Fueled by righteous indignation about the ills of our society, she could be unpredictable, cantankerous, intimidating and downright ferocious -- yet also sensitive, kind, and generous. Lincoln was never shy about expressing her opinions. I once asked her if she thought her songs had anything to do with her longevity as a performer. She hesitated only for a moment, nodded, and boiled her answer down into a single phrase: "Because I have something to say."

We owe much to Lincoln's songs for her marvelous career as a performer, as a pioneering woman and singer. If she could hear the ghosts, the spirits in the sounds of the music we call jazz, by the same token, Abbey Lincoln and her music should be with us for a very long time to come.

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