It's early afternoon, and the dignified old blues singers are sitting around the living room of Laura Petaway's house on Irving Street NW, waiting to rehearse for a weekend session at the Museum of American History. But the musicians are late, so the blues singers talk instead of singing.
Or at least they try to talk.
"Next time I ask somebody to play for me I'm going to find out if they have another job, because I don't like to wait for rehearsals," says Petaway, who is 80 and has been singing the blues for 50 years.
Was she blue?
"Am I bluuuue?" Petaway crooned, her sentences humming right along. "Ain't these tears in these eyes? There was a time I was the only one, but now I'm a sad and lonely one . . . ."
Mary Jefferson, who has sung the blues since the 1940s, picks up the refrain of the popular Ethel Waters blues hit. "Was I gay, until today? Now he's gone and we're through. And you've got the nerve to ask . . . ."
They reply in unison, "Am I bluuuue!" then break out in hearty laughter.
Glad I asked.
Borne of hard times, blues could make you cry. But this was thoroughly uplifting.
"My theme song," says Jefferson, "is, 'He may be your man, but he comes to see me sometimes. He comes so often, I'm beginning to think he's mine."
The ladies laugh again, but Jefferson apologizes, saying she hopes no woman would ever have to hear or say those words. Blanche Jordan, (Vernon Jordan's aunt), nods affirmatively as she eases onto a piano seat. The apology is so powerful even it deserves background music.
"Just like I always said," said Petaway, to the sound of Jordan's blue notes, "If you got a good man, don't spread the news because your best friend will take him and leave you with the empty bed blues."
"Blues ain't nothing but a woman wanting another woman's man," says Jefferson. "She can't get him when she want him, so she's got to catch him when she can."
They were singing a woman's blues, which is quite different from what you hear from the B.B. Kings of the world. "I was locked up and charged with forgery," goes one familiar male lyric. "But I couldn't even write my name."
When Petaway, Jefferson and another blues singer, Clara Smith, take the stage at 1 p.m. Saturday in the Carmichael Auditorium, they will not be talking about getting locked up, working on the railroad or drinking liquor and gambling until the break of dawn.
No, Lord. They'll be talking about the one thing that has given women the blues since Eve discovered fig leaves: men. But they'll be doing it with a love that can hardly be explained, given the way many of them have been treated by men.
"When I first heard Zora Hurston say that 'women were the mules of the world,' I got upset," said Jefferson. "But then I started to realize that we do carry the burdens. We birth the child, raise the child, console and nurture the father, then the child grows up and turns against his mother, hits the streets and dies while his father is tipping out with another girl."
When the songs get that deep, they're called "gut blues," which is what Alberta Hunter, Billie Holiday and Esther Phillips sang. There was something else called "torch music," which was white people's blues. It was okay, but only black women seemed capable of reaching the gut level.
"Why was I born?" sang Petaway, as they waited for the musicians to show. " . . . Why do I try to draw you near me? Why do I cry? You never hear me. I'm a poor fool, but what can I do? Why was I born to love you?"