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Abbey Lincoln on Abbey Lincoln

Wednesday, August 8, 2007.


By Mark Anthony Neal

“When I’m called home/I will bring a book/That tells of strange and funny turns/And of the heart it took/To keep on living in a world that never was my own/A world of haunted memories of other worlds unknown”—Abbey Lincoln in “When I’m Called Home”

Abbey Lincoln’s singing never gets any better—but that’s never been the reason we’ve listened to her. From the moment she belted out the opening bars from her debut Affair…Story of a Girl in Love, until she stepped into the studio last fall to record the music for her latest release from Verve, we’ve expected Abbey Lincoln to be the barometer for the failings and vulnerabilities of our own humanities.


And yet now well into her 70s, there’s a singular beauty to those once disparaged and now weathered flat tones that mark her as one of the most unique vocalists ever to record.


Nearly 35 years since Lincoln first recorded one of her own compositions—after bringing to life the compositions of musical geniuses like Max Roach, Oscar Brown, Jr., Duke Ellington, Kurt Weil and most fabulously Thelonious Monk—Abbey Sings Abbey finds the vocalist bringing nuance and originality to songs that have long been associated with her.

Journalist June L’Rue wrote more than 40 years ago that Abbey Lincoln wanted to “sing the kind of songs, which to her, told the most beautiful story of all—that of the American black woman.” (Pittsburgh Courier, May 1961) It would be some time before Lincoln would write those songs, though it was on the album
Straight Ahead (1961) that Lincoln began embrace songwriting seriously.


Straight Ahead featured a lyrical rendition of Monk’s “Blue Monk”. As the story goes Monk stopped by the studio to give his blessings to the project and whispered in Lincoln’s ear, “don’t be so perfect”. Those were perceptive words for a woman who has never fit comfortably into the expectations often assigned to black women in American society.

Lincoln was never going to be the willing and able chanteuse—nor the docile and doting romantic and artistic partner, even as the era of Black Power increasingly demanded that black women take their rightful place in support of the men who presumed to be the public voice of black liberation struggles.


For a figure like Lincoln that red “Marilyn Monroe” dress she was forced to wear on the cover of Ebony Magazine in June of 1957 was no more suited for her than the dashiki she wore as one of the revolution’s artistic caretakers. Well known is Lincoln’s grating against the wifely expectations that the legendary drummer Max Roach—her former husband and mentor—held out for her.


No matter how instrumental Roach was in terms of bringing the former Anna Marie Wooldridge into political consciousness—and Lincoln readily acknowledges his role in this regard—Roach was limited in his capacity to provide Lincoln with the fertile artistic environment where she could speak more forcefully to her experiences as a women. So Lincoln turned inward and improvised her way through nearly two-decades of life, recording sporadically on independent labels as was the case with her now classic People in Me (1973) and Talking to the Sun (1983).

Lincoln reemerged as a commercial artist in 1990 with
The World is Falling Down, her first for the Verve label. The bulk of the music she has recorded over the span of 8 recordings has been her own. In contrast some clichéd notion of writing from a black women’s perspective, Lincoln’s music over the past 15 years is about a more nuanced centering of black women’s intellect and creativity.


For black women artists the stakes are much higher as Farah Jasmine Griffin suggests in her book If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday: “Since the earliest days of our nation black women were thought to be incapable of possessing genius; their achievements were considered the very opposite of intellectual accomplishment…Black women, in particular, were body feeling, emotion and sexuality” (14).

Unlike her previous recordings Abbey Sings Abbey prominently features instruments—the pedal steel guitar, mandolin and National resonator guitar—normally associated with American roots music. Such instruments were critical in helping vocalist Cassandra Wilson gain a larger audience more than a decade ago when she joined the Blue Note label.


The overall impact here on Abbey Sings Abbey is to suggest that Lincoln’s music is quintessential Americana, which of course can be extended to Monk’s “Blue Monk” which opens the new disc. As such a track like “The World is Falling Down” comes off as a universal anthem that finds resonance in rising fuel prices, rising healthcare costs and lowered expectation for elected officials and corporate media outlets.

Lincoln has always been at her best when she allows herself to be musically allured by the isolation that has companioned much of her adult life. On Abbey Sings Abbey, the haunting “Bird Alone” seems to speak to a longing for the very loneliness that the “bird alone” embodies.


The same can be said for the metaphoric space that is “Down Here Below” as Lincoln sings “Through the weary night/I pray my soul will find me shining/In the morning/Down here below.” Listening to the joyous “The Merry Dancer”, one gets a glimpse of the girlhood that Lincoln has long left behind, but which the spirit of often makes an appearance as in the funky “Glenda” hats that nearly always adorn Lincoln’s head.

Farah Jasmine Griffin writes of Lincoln that “Perhaps Lincoln’s greatest creation has been herself”. Lincoln speaks to that reality on the poignant “Being Me” which closes Abbey Sings Abbey.


As Lincoln sings, “It wasn’t always easy learning to be me/Sometimes my heart and head would disagree…Being me, I dared to be myself alone.”(190). But as the legions of Abbey Lincoln fans will attest, Lincoln has never really ever been alone—except in her role as one of the most unique artistic spirits of the last half-century.


Abbey Sings Abbey is a fitting tribute to the woman’s genius.


Mark Anthony Neal is an Associate Professor of African and African-American Studies at Duke University where he also serves as the Director of the Institute for Critical U.S. Studies. He is a columnist for Vibe Magazine and writes for other reputable publications. Mark blogs at New Black Man.


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