Laura Petaway will sing in the "Women in Blues" colloquium at the National Museum of American History this Saturday, March 9. The date given in a Style article yesterday was incorrect.
When Laura Petaway started singing nearly 50 years ago, she began with gospel -- not surprising, since she came from a religious African Methodist Episcopal family in Snowhill, N.C. But after moving to Washington in the early '20s, where there was an active nightlife, she started singing torch songs and jazz and, eventually, blues. Now 80, Petaway will sing the blues once again tomorrow at the two-part "Women in Blues" colloquium organized by the Program in Black American Culture at the Museum of American History as a salute to the blues and its role in the development of black American women singers.
The program begins at 1 p.m. in Carmichael Auditorium with "Singing a Woman's Blues," featuring Petaway, Washington jazz and blues singer Mary Jefferson and Clara Smith of New Jersey discussing their experiences as entertainers. Daphne Duval Harrison, associate professor and chair in the Department of African American Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, will deliver a lecture titled "The Uncrowned Queens," a history of women singers during the early blues era. At 3:30 the colloquium continues with a film and lecture, "The Legacy of Black Women Blues Singers on Film," presented by jazz historian and collector Rosetta Reitz. And at 8 p.m. Petaway, Jefferson and Smith, an internationally acclaimed blues singer from East Orange, N.J., will perform in the Pendulum Hall.
Petaway has always preferred playing to "the listening crowd. I liked those tear-jerking songs. And if I had a listening audience, I could get into it," she said during an interview last week at her Columbia Heights home. The emotion she put into her songs often came from within. "At that time you had your boyfriends and your lovers, and I could just feel it."
Petaway still sings, but she says the motivation isn't quite the same. "I don't feel it now because I ain't in love with nobody." But she remembers well the time that she was. "I would sing songs and see men just cry," she recalled. "There was this doctor who used to follow me around -- I guess he was in love or something. I was at a club in Southwest, and when I sang 'Why Was I Born?' he sat there with water running down his face. Afterwards, my pianist told me his wife had just left him."
After starting her singing career in Washington, Petaway moved to New York and the RKO amateur circuit, a group of theaters where singers, dancers and comedians who needed more experience competed against each other for prize money ranging from $5 to $20. Petaway was making a name for herself even then. "I usually won. They'd see me and say to each other, 'Oh, I know she's going to win.' One night we were at the Apollo and Duke Ellington was there and I sang with him and I won first prize that night, too."
Her success on the RKO circuit brought her an agent and a $50-a-week engagement at Wise's, which she describes as "a Yiddish club" on the Lower East Side ("You had to catch the D train almost to the end of the line"), an establishment frequented by Rocky Graziano and other sports and entertainment celebrities. After four years at Wise's, Petaway moved back to Washington in the late 1950s so her daughter could go to Howard University.
She continued singing the blues, including her favorite, "St. Louis Blues," and her own composition, "The Weary Weeping Blues," both of which she'll perform Saturday. In most of the clubs then -- the Big Apple at 14th and T, the Green Parrot on U Street, the Underground Caverns at 11th and U, Jerry's in Southwest, the Departmental Auditorium -- singers usually did requests rather than a prepared program. At one time Petaway had a repertoire of 700 songs, which enabled her to perform just about any number a customer might ask for. "They don't have nothing like that now," she observed. "It was really life."
In the 1970s Petaway, an independent woman who never married, went into semi-retirement at her daughter's insistence, singing only when asked. While she's not necessarily expecting it, she says she is prepared for the fact that her performance at the Smithsonian may open the door to other opportunities. "If it happens like that," she declared, "I'll be out on it."