Norwegian singers pay tribute to women of the past
Ladies sing the blues at Notodden Blues Festival
When the Notodden Blues Festival in Telemark celebrated its 35th anniversary Aug. 3–6, Rita Engedalen and Margit Bakken, the front women in Damer i Blues (Women in Blues) talked fondly about gospel singer Ester Mae Wilbourn from Clarksdale, one of the voices on their new album. Somehow it was no wonder, since Clarksdale is Notodden’s sister city.
“I will never forget the first time that I heard Ester Mae from Como Mamas – I was completely blown away,” says Rita Engedalen.
With Women in Blues, Engedalen and Bakken have traveled all over Norway for the past 20 years to pay tribute to the women who paved the way for new generations of women in the blues genre. At the festival, they released My Precious Blues, featuring gospel singer Ester Mae Wilbourn of Como Mamas from Clarksdale, Miss., an amazing gospel group known for their renditions of old hymns for the Black Baptist church.
With Wilbourn, they recorded the music at the Clarksdale Soundstage Studio. Wilbourn’s powerful gospel voice can be heard on Engedalen’s “I Will Be Ready,” a personal song dedicated to all other women and mothers who feel the blues in their lives. She also sings the gospel anthem “Shine On Me.”
The two Norwegian women have taken some of their inspiration from Norwegian blues musician Kristin Berglund. In 2003, they came in contact with Berglund’s musical project Bluesens Tøffe Damer (Tough Ladies of the Blues). Through this collaboration, Kristin became an important colleague and friend, but sadly, she died in 2006. On their album, Rita and Marit chose to include one of Berglund’s personal songs in their program, “Your Secret Box of Mysteries.”
On the My Precious Blues album, Engedalen and Bakken honor a selection of the important women in the history of music. The album is personal and describes an encounter with strong women musicians who have inspired them as well as their inspirational trips to Mississippi.
Six of the 11 songs on My Precious Blues comprise new material written by Engedalen, who in her seven previous solo albums always included a tribute to her encounters with the other women blues forerunners. On the album, recurring cries of hope and justice can be heard in her lyrics in pieces such as “Let the Freedom Come” and “Nobody Can Take My Soul.”
Engedalen is a rarity as a Norwegian woman blues lyricist. She is one of the strongest blues voices in Norway, and her powerful voice also brings the audience closer to the Indigenous Sámi people.
When we last met, she said, “I’ve been working a bit on singing technique here,” pointing to her diaphragm.
Engedalen received the Spellemannsprisen (the Norwegian equivalent to the Grammy) for the album Heaven Ain’t Ready For Me Yet in 2006 and the Notodden Blues Festival’s Blues Award in 2010. In 2012, she won the European Blues Challenge in Berlin.
Toward brighter times
Engedalen, who comes from the Jondalen valley in Kongsberg municipality, grew up listening to Johnny Cash. You could say that it was American hill-country blues and Norwegian folk music that inspired her the most—in addition to gospel music.
On her previous album, Sun Will Come, released during the pandemic, she also honors the first blues women, especially Billie Holiday and her poignant classic “Strange Fruit.” Engedalen focuses on strong, important values and has expressed that we must have more tolerance and understanding of each other’s cultures. The Norwegian blues scene cheered when the Independent Blues Broadcasters Association, a group of radio broadcasters in the United Kingdom, selected Sun Will Come as album of the month.
According to Engedalen, “women in blues are not a given in Norway. We have few of them, and they have to know how to find their place.” She has always been one to encourage young women to demand to be heard. She has the voice to send out this message. She puts it this way: “Morten Omlid and Bård Gunnar Moe challenged me to dare to develop and to continue to give my songs the expression I wanted them to have.”
Engedalen wrote 10 of 11 songs on the previous album. She was joined by musician Nils Petter Molvær in the title track “I am Changed,” with lyrics that are more of a plea for brighter times than a promise. Guitarist Morten Omlid got his own star in Notodden’s Blues Walk of Fame, where Engedalen already has hers. The album cover was created by Jessie Mae Hemphill (1923-2006), another role model and friend.
The day before the previous album release, Engedalen and Hilde Beate Lia from Notodden engaged in a conversation about Lia’s book Crazy Cryin’ Blues at Notodden’s library, the only blues library in Europe. The book is published by Christer Falck in English. They also talked about women who have inspired them and the travels to Mississippi.
After the release of this year’s album, Engedalen and Bakken repeated the program Talking Blues. They talked blues and performed songs from My Precious Blues, a musical journey with songs ranging from the close acoustic to emotional expressions with suggestive rhythms.
The duet “Strugglin’ Woman’s Blues” is one of the pieces. It was originally recorded by blues singer Clara Smith and her Five Black Kittens in 1927. They dominated the Black music market in the early 20th century, a time when recording opportunities first opened up to African-American artists.
On the new album, Bakken interprets Alberta Hunter’s “You Can’t Tell the Difference After Dark.” It has a satirical text, filled with sex appeal, irony, and humor. The text clearly has an underlying message, and there is probably a deeply painful realization underlying it. Hunter’s 1935 recording was never released at that time. “Many years had to pass by,” says Bakken.
These contemporary modern women of the blues honor the women who paved the way for them: Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey, Clara Smith, and Bessie Smith, artists who opened the door to African-American women artists. And it is these women who inspire other Norwegian blues artists of today, just as they did at the 35th blues festival that took place in August in Telemark.
All photos by Tove Andersson
This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.