For Ann Rabson, only the throaty rollicking of the blues can convey the pain and satisfaction of being an American woman. Rabson, 46, a pianist, is one-third of what is certainly the world’s most successful women’s Blues band: Saffire — The Uppity Blues Women. The diverse trio brings together “part-Cherokee, all-Okie” Earlene Lewis, African-American Gaye Adegbalola, and Rabson, who comes from a New York Jewish family transplanted to small-town Ohio.
The band’s diversity, Rabson says, has been a source of fascination for audiences and the media. “There certainly are cultural differences among the people in my band, and I suspect that some of my cultural orientation comes from being Jewish. We have to be on our toes not to offend each other.”
Her non-observant family left little religious impact on Rabson, but, she says, “there was always a feeling of being different.” This sense of being outside mainstream white American culture contributed to her leanings toward the Blues, long the province of the marginalized. Although Saffire touches upon some of the traditional my-man-left-me-and-it-hurts-like-hell Blues themes, the group also celebrates both womanhood and aging, as illustrated in the song “Middle-Aged Blues.” Their latest album is “Hot Flash,” and the group is currently working on a third. Rabson refuses to sing what she terms “masochistic, Bessie Smith” songs. “I can only bring myself to sing songs that relate to me,” she says.
But the selection of traditional Blues songs which remain true to a feminist sensibility is large, stemming from “a tremendous history of strong women in the Blues.” As a result, the group’s listeners include “more women, more gay people, and more affluent people in addition to the traditional Blues audience,” Rabson says. It’s a diversity that the group courts. “We’re a whole lot more likely to go back to a place where they’re all different hues and different shapes and sizes.”
None of the women started out in the performing life. In 1984, Rabson was a computer programmer in Fredericksburg, Virginia, raising her teenage daughter alone (she is now remarried), when she and Adegbalola, a guitarist, began playing together, Earlene Lewis, a computer student of Rabson’s, was taking a make-up quiz at Rabson’s house while the two rehearsed, and was soon abducted into the midlife sowing of wild oats.
Rabson’s first year was overbooked; she worked full-time and played five nights a week. “For a single parent, going to the bar is a problem,” she says, “but I had a lot of help from the community.”
Today, the group spends a good deal of time on the road, driving cross-country and occasionally splitting up for regroupings with other Blues players.
“I personally feel much more comfortable in this life,” says Rabson, who loves “the excitement of never knowing where you’re going to be the next day.”
Rabson’s fingers dance across the piano keys and the women’s voices come forth. Their words proclaim not only their own independence, but the universal strength of women.
I’m not the kind of woman you can leave behind
I can get you out of my life;
You’ll never get me out of your mind
… I’ll be rid of you ’til the day I die;
You’ll be haunted for the rest of your life.