Essay On Lena Horne

"Performing 'Stormy Weather': Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, and Katherine Dunham": This essay demonstrates how an African-American modernist impulse and racial critique could be posed and circulated through the sounds, movements, and mises-en-scène of popular and mass performance. Examining the dramaturgical dimensions of the song "Stormy Weather" in key performances in the first half of the twentieth century reveals expressions of African-American modernism in some unlikely places: Tin Pan Alley standards, Cotton Club Parades, and Hollywood all-black movie musicals. Performances by Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, and Katherine Dunham help us to see how popular song might have stood in excess of—even as it was embedded within—the standardizing and rationalizing impulse of corporate musical production and the universalizing abstractions of the mass public sphere. As a case study, "Stormy Weather" provides an example of how a fugitive black modernism transported itself on the byways of popular musical thoroughfares, remapping the cartography of American culture in the process. Seen in the context of performance, this otherwise sentimental popular standard stands instead as a highly self-reflexive engagement with and critique of the course of black American performance history.

If she could have swallowed her pride, Lena Horne could have had an easy life. Born into a middle-class African-American family in New York in 1917, she was beautiful, talented and ambitious. At the age of 16, much to her family's disapproval, she auditioned as a chorus dancer at the famous Cotton Club, and got the job. She followed this up by taking voice lessons, sang with the black "society" band of Noble Sissle and appeared on Broadway in Blackbirds of 1939 and 1940.

The first jolt in her hitherto smooth showbiz career occured when she became the singer with the top-flight white band of Charlie Barnet and suffered the indignity of having to use the tradesmen's entrance and goods elevator when working at smart hotels. She left Barnet to concentrate on cabaret work and found herself working at the most unusual nightclub in the whole of New York. Café Society Downtown was a determinedly non-segregated venue whose motto was "The wrong place for the right people". In this radical milieu, where Paul Robeson was a regular attraction and where Billie Holiday had introduced the anti-lynching song Strange Fruit, Lena - as she later declared - found herself.

At the same time, she was blossoming into a star. She appeared in several films, most famously Stormy Weather (where she sang the title song) and Cabin In The Sky (along with Louis Armstrong and Ethel Waters). Throughout the second world war she was the black GIs' number-one pinup. She refused to take demeaning parts or to wear special makeup to darken her naturally light-toned complexion.

In 1947 she married her musical director, Lennie Hayton, but they were forced to keep their marriage a secret for three years because of racist threats. The marriage lasted until Hayton's death in 1971.

At the age of 74 Lena Horne starred in her own Broadway show, The Lady And Her Music. It ran for 14 months, after which she took it on tour around the US for a further year. At 80 she gave a concert at the JVC jazz festival in New York, where she received a lifetime achievement award. Until the very end, she never once softened her firm stance against racism or missed an opportunity to advance the cause she believed in. She will be missed.


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