Wasn’t that a mighty storm?
Pat “Mother Blues” Cohen performs at the Triad Jazz & BluesFestival International at Development Park in Greensboro on Saturday.Other artists include Melva Houston, Color Latino, Chick Willis, Sage,Triad Youth Jazz Society Jazz & Java and Bob Sanger. Visit www.triadjazzfest.org’ for more information.
Katrina, Katrina, you put a hurt on me When I try to run for cover, you just won’t let me free Katrina, Katrina, you took away my home Katrina, Katrina, left me so all alone Katrina, Katrina, where are all my gigs? Katrina, Katrina, there was a time when I was big Pat “Mother Blues” Cohen’s website is like a time capsule: a Flash Version bathed in electric blue with lightning flashing, a soundtrack meshing primordial blues and classical-music fury, a weird animated diorama with computer monitors and a revolving blue skull, the singer in her fabulous colored wigs and a calendar page that lists a standing gig at the Rhythm & Blues Club on Bourbon Street every Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, an in-store performance at Tower Records and a spot in the Blues Tent at the Jazz & Heritage Festival in May. That was before she evacuated New Orleans in a mechanically iffy pickup only one day ahead of Katrina, before she returned to her Ninth Ward apartment to find her wigs stomped on and the headboard of her bed busted by looters who broke through her wall, before she found her sound equipment destroyed by water damage. It’s been a long way back for this 51-year-old eccentric daughter of Union County, North Carolina, who lost a thriving music career entertaining tourists and singing for private corporate parties in the instant fury of Katrina and had to start totally from scratch in Salisbury with the help of her father and brothers. “Being displaced is self-explanatory,” she says by phone from her home in East Spencer after finishing up a meal of reheated chicken. “It’s like being dropped off on the moon. You haven’t done any research or study about a place. I had to find musicians. I had to find the places where people play. I had to figure out what places hired people. First of all, I had to find a place to live. I was determined. Determination was the key. Eventually, I’m going to overcome all the insanity because it’s getting better every day.” Eleanor Qadirah, the founder of the Rowan Blues & Jazz Society, says she sought out Cohen after reading about her in the local newspaper; Cohen says it was she who sought out Qadirah after someone told her about the blues society. Qadirah booked her to play her annual festival in downtown Salisbury a few months after the hurricane. She introduced her to the musicians in Salisbury, who are not numerous. She encouraged her to look beyond Rowan County. “I was pushing her towards Greensboro,” the promoter says, “because I thought Greensboro was the home of the blues.”’ Qadirah encouraged Cohen to tone down a flamboyant stage presentation: “the blue hair, the blue clothes, the blue stockings.” What pleased the inebriated tourists on Bourbon Street might not go over so well in the conservative Piedmont. “I said, ‘Do you know that distracts from your voice? You’ve got a good voice,’” Qadirah recalls. “When you’re in a dark place or a tourist setting it’s not that noticeable. It’s different when you’re in a small setting. You should be into the music.”” A lifelong nonconformist, the singer has stuck to her guns despite receiving few bookings for the corporate events and festivals she seeks, and despite having to accept insulting pay when she does. “I’m not hurting anybody,” she says. “I’m not insulting anybody. I don’t think what I’m doing is offensive. It makes everybody smile…. I’ve been like that all my life. I wear blue hair a lot, but I wear all different colors of hair. I’ve paid my dues to do it and nobody can tell me not to.” Cohen’s mother tried to steer her away from singing. Now she understands why. “I never wanted to do anything but sing or entertain in some way,” she says. “My mother didn’t want me to do that. She wanted me to go to college and live, as she would put it, as a normal person. For a long time, I resented it and didn’t understand it. “Living as an entertainer is not an easy thing,” she continues. “People say, ‘Oh, I wish I could sing.’ I say, ‘Oh, I wish I could get organized…. I just wish I could get insurance. From week to week, I never know how much I’m going to make. And then I’m in a different area. I’ve been here three years, and it’s like living the life of a blues singer. I have to prove myself everywhere.” Qadirah notes, “The wheels of progress are a little slow.” Cohen has been gigging in Charlotte. She’s sung at Speakeasy Jazz in Winston-Salem. Gary Redd at the Red Lion introduced her to some folks in High Point. And on Saturday afternoon she’ll prove her talent on the Triad Jazz & Blues Festival International stage at the corner of East Lee and Florida Streets in Greensboro. There are small blessings born from acts of mutual aid in the music life. “When I was in New Orleans I had gotten to know everybody,” Cohen recalls. “I knew all the musicians. I knew everything I needed to know there. There was a guy who came down from the Winston-Salem/High Point area. I said, ‘You’re like a homeboy to me.’ When he moved to New Orleans, I helped him in every way I possibly could. When I came home, who did I run into? His name is Charles Spring. He helped me, introduced me around. It’s like the big payback. He was so glad to help me.” Like any blues woman, she would like to find a good man. But not every suitor can appreciate just how the music business demands of performers. Like “Katrina, Katrina,” the song “I Ain’t Gonna Have Nobody Treat Me Bad” comes from her own experience. “That’s when my boyfriend at the time was treating me so crazy,” she says. “I’m single now. I wish I could find somebody really nice that would want to treat me nice and do nice things for me. The guys that I find are really jealous. They like the fact that you sing, but they can’t handle it. They can’t separate work from personal life. You’re just working; you’re always going to come home. “That makes you very lonely,” she continues. “The ones that say, ‘I wish I could sing,’ I say, ‘I wish I could find a man.’ I look pretty nice. I don’t know where to find a man…. I’m not someone who hangs out in bars. I’m not in church every Sunday. If I do go to church, it’s for my spiritual blessing. I don’t like to date people that I work with because it’s unprofessional.” To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at firstname.lastname@example.org.