Abbey Lincoln: A Woman Speaking Her Mind

Continuing the Great Women Vocalist Tradition

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: You sang in high school too, right? High school band follies?

ABBEY LINCOLN: Yeah. Mr. Chenery is the one who included me in the show. It was his project and I sang for three years. The first year I sang an Ella Fitzgerald song I’d heard, a song that she’d sung. And the second year I sang a song that Lena Horne had sung, “Stormy Weather.” “A Sunday Kind of Love,” Ella had sung. And then the last year, I sang Sarah Vaughan‘s “You’re Mine…”—I mean “Don’t Blame Me.” After that, shortly after that, we moved to…

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: Calvin—

ABBEY LINCOLN: No, we were in, this was in Kalamazoo in high school. I went to high school in Kalamazoo. After that was when I went to Jackson, Michigan. The minister of the church sent for me to sing for the young kids in the basement of the church. They call it the Devil’s music.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: Was it that way when you were in high school?

ABBEY LINCOLN: It’s always been like that. Yeah, they call it the Devil’s music. Jazz. It’s not seen as sacred or holy, but if you sing about Jesus, then it’s holy. If you don’t sing about Jesus, it’s not holy. But it’s the same music.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: Did your parents accept you singing these songs?

ABBEY LINCOLN: I didn’t sing anything that wasn’t what was expected of me. I didn’t sing the blues or anything like that. Mama told me that her mother, that when she was a little girl in the house she was singin,’ [sings] “He may be your man, but he comes to see me sometimes.” And my grandmother, her mother, slapped her in the mouth, and she never sang that again. So I started writing songs when I discovered what I’d been delivered to: a stage where women stand and sing about a low-life man. Now what does that make a woman? If he’s nothing how can you be something? I don’t sing any of those songs anymore. I did it for a number of years. “Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe.”

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: “You’re Mine, You.”

ABBEY LINCOLN: Yeah.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI:Good For Nothing Joe.”

ABBEY LINCOLN:Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man (of mine).” “My Man.” “It’s cost me a lot but there’s one thing I got, it’s my man. Cold and wet. Tired? You bet. All of this, I’ll soon forget with my man. He’s not much on looks, he’s no hero out of books, but I love him. Two or three girls has he that he likes as well as me, but I love him. I don’t know why I should. He isn’t good. He isn’t true. He beats me too. What can I do?” You have to be a stupid woman to go for something like that.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: But wait a second, I mean…

ABBEY LINCOLN: No, I am not waiting a second! You leave. What can you do? You leave!

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: But there are women who you admired, who you do admire, who have sung those songs, like Lena Horne and Billie Holiday.

ABBEY LINCOLN: That doesn’t mean that I don’t admire them. It was the time for that. The people that hired them expected them to play this role of the berated woman whose man wasn’t nothing.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: And they did it.

ABBEY LINCOLN: And she was not seen as anything herself. “Stormy Weather.” Anyway…

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