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Writer and Producer Chris Albertson

Writer and producer Chris Albertson is considered an authority on blues singer Bessie Smith. His 1971 biography of Smith has been reissued in a new revised and expanded edition. It's called Bessie, and it contains new details on Smith's early years, new interview material, and a chapter devoted to events and responses that followed the original publication.


Other segments from the episode on July 1, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 1, 2003: Interview with Chris Albertson; Interview with Rhodessa Jones; Commentary on the word "slippery slope."


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Chris Albertson, author of "Bessie," talks about
Bessie Smith, the great blues singer

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Chris Albertson, has written a new edition of his 1972 biography of
Bessie Smith, which was considered the definitive biography when it was
published. Albertson first heard Bessie Smith on the radio when he was a
teen-ager growing up in Copenhagen. Her music led him to a lifelong passion
for blues and jazz. In 1970, he moved to the United States to pursue his
interest in the music. Albertson convinced Columbia Records to reissue Bessie
Smith's recordings, which they owned. He produced the reissues and wrote the
liner notes. He won a Grammy Award in 1971. The reissue's success led to his
biography of Smith. Albertson has also been a long-time contributor to many
magazines and has written extensive liner notes for jazz and blues albums.
He's produced many recordings, as well as radio and TV programs.

Let's start with this 1933 Bessie Smith recording, "Do Your Duty."

(Soundbite of "Do Your Duty")

Ms. BESSIE SMITH: (Singing) If I call three times a day, baby, come and
drive my blues away, when you come, be ready to play, do your duty. If you
want to have some love, give your baby your last buck. Don't come quackin' up
like a duck, do your duty. I heard you say you didn't love me, baby, you're
seeing that Mrs. Brown. I don't believe a word she said. She's the lyingest
woman in town. Oh, babe, when I need attention at home, I'll just call you on
the telephone. I'm your ...(unintelligible) your friend Jones, do your duty.

GROSS: Bessie Smith died in 1937. The story of her death has become one of
the legends of music history. But when Chris Albertson was writing his
biography of Smith, he learned the legend was just that. It wasn't what
really happened. Here's the story the way it used to be told.

Mr. CHRIS ALBERTSON (Author, "Bessie"): The story was that she was in a car
accident, and that part of it was correct, but then the story went on to say
that she was taken to a hospital in Memphis--that was wrong, because it wasn't
Memphis, it was Clarksdale, Mississippi--and that that hospital, being a white
hospital, had turned her away because she was black because that was the
policy down there. And as a consequence of that, Bessie Smith allegedly bled
to death, so she was a victim of racism.

GROSS: How did you find out that this story wasn't actually true?

Mr. ALBERTSON: Well, I was suspicious to begin with, because of the fact
that there was a black hospital within a half a mile of the white one, so it
didn't make any sense that she would be taken there, so that started it. Then
I looked through old Down Beats, as a matter of fact, and I came across a
story by George Hayfor(ph), who was trying to find out what really happened.
He obviously didn't believe what happened, and he mentioned a Dr. Hugh
Smith(ph), who had been on the scene of the accident and was an intern at the
Campbell Clinic in Memphis.

And it turned out that Dr. Smith was still there, he was now the head of the
clinic, and so I mentioned to him that I was trying to get to the truth of the
death of Bessie Smith. He said, `Oh, I don't want to talk about that. I am
so sick and tired of all these stories, and they're all lies, and I've just
decided I'm not going to talk about it.' And he said, `I'll tell you one
thing, Columbia has just put out some new LPs on Bessie Smith and you read
the liner notes there, and you'll find the closest to the truth.' And I said,
`Well, I wrote those liner notes.' He said, `I'll talk to you.'

And he really did. He had a tape recorder at home, so he sat down that
following Sunday. I had sent him some questions, and he just sat down and
told in great detail what he remembered from the accident.

GROSS: Would you sum that up for us, what he remembered?

Mr. ALBERTSON: Sure. What really happened was, Bessie was driving her
old--she wasn't driving; she was riding in it, and her lover, who was also her
manager, Lionel Hampton's uncle, was driving the car. And it was just the two
of them, going on Route 61, very, very dark, very straight road,
`mesmerizingly straight,' as the doctor put it, and there was a large truck
that--from Nabisco--and the driver of that truck thought something was wrong
with one of his tires. He had stopped the truck, he'd pulled over a little
bit to the side of the road, and went to check the tire and found out nothing
was wrong, and he'd gotten back into the truck and in those days, those trucks
accelerated very slowly. So as he was driving--as he was driving off and
continuing his journey, Bessie's car came, and Richard Morgan, who was driving
it, suddenly realized, apparently, that he was going to hit this truck, so he
veered to the left to avoid it.

Bessie had her arm out the window, which was normal in those days; they didn't
have air conditioning in the cars. And Bessie's arm apparently hit the back
of the truck as it veered, turned over Bessie's car, and Bessie was thrown
out, and so she was lying in the middle of the road. And the truck driver
didn't stop to check it out. He just kept right going. So moments after
that, while the taillights of the truck are still visible, this Dr. Smith,
the intern from the Campbell Clinic, is going on a fishing trip with a Mr.
Broughton(ph), who's a friend of his, and they come across the accident. All
of a sudden, they see Bessie lying there in the middle of the road in his
headlights, and they see the red lights of the truck disappearing into the
darkness, and Richard Morgan running around, totally dazed and hysterical.

So being a doctor, he goes right over and checks Bessie, and she's not
conscious, but she was bleeding, apparently bleeding internally, but her arm
was almost severed, and so he sends Mr. Broughton to a nearby house to call an
ambulance, which Mr. Broughton does. But when he comes back and they wait and
there's still no ambulance, they finally decide to move the fishing gear from
the back of the car and put Bessie there.

While they're doing that, another car comes from the same direction, and it
turns out to be a young white couple who had been partying and a little bit
high, and didn't see the doctor's car, and smashed right into the doctor's
car, pushed that against the wreck of Bessie's car. Then shortly after that,
two ambulances show up, one from the white hospital, one from the black. It
turns out that Broughton, of course, knew that Bessie was black, so he had
called a black hospital, but the truck driver had gone right to a hospital,
gone to the white hospital, and said, `There's an accident up the road.' He
didn't know whether the people were black or white, so he just went to the
white hospital.

So therefore these two ambulances came and the black one took Bessie and the
white one took the couple. And that was it.

GROSS: And Bessie Smith died of blood loss?

Mr. ALBERTSON: Bessie Smith--when she got to the hospital, the doctor had to
sever her arm, and he said she never regained consciousness, she was bleeding
internally, and she died at 10:00 that morning.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about Bessie Smith's life. She was born in
Chattanooga, grew up in a little shack. Her father was a laborer and a
preacher. When she got a little older, she started on the black vaudeville
circuit. Would you describe the circuit that she started on?

Mr. ALBERTSON: Well, she really started with a sort of small touring company
that would come and appear in little storefront theaters, you know, nothing
fancy. And her brother Clarence, her older brother, had gone away with a
show, had left Chattanooga, and he came back to the show in 1912. And Bessie
begged him to take her with him when he left. And so he arranged for an
audition, but they didn't hire her as a singer, they hired her as a dancer.
And it was the Moses Stokes Company. And it just so happened they had a
singer already, and her name was Gertrude Rainey, and that was Ma Rainey.
So there another myth came about, you know, that it was Ma Rainey who trained
Bessie's voice, which is not true. I think Ma Rainey probably taught her
stage presence. She might well of done that. They were very good friends.

GROSS: So how did Bessie Smith make the transition from dancing in the same
group that Ma Rainey was singing in to become a singer herself?

Mr. ALBERTSON: Well, because Bessie had been singing before she went on the
show, before she left Chattanooga with the show, which she was hired as a
dancer. She had been singing on street corners in Chattanooga. So she was
actually a singer, but the reason they hired her as a dancer is because they
didn't need another singer. They had Ma Rainey and they apparently didn't
want two singers. So she became a dancer; then of course as soon as she got
an opportunity to sing in another show when she got to the 81 Theater in
Atlanta, she started singing, and apparently anyone who heard her sing
realized that that's what she should be doing.

GROSS: Now Bessie Smith not only sang blues songs, she sang a fair amount of
Tin Pan Alley songs, songs like "Alexander's Ragtime Band" or "There'll Be A
Hot Time In the Old Town Tonight." How did she start singing that material as
part of her repertoire?

Mr. ALBERTSON: I think she always did. I mean, I remember Ida Cox, the
blues singer, I asked her about her, when she started singing, and she said,
`Well, the first song I sang was "Put Your Arms Around Me Honey." And Alberta
Hunter was a great friend of mine. She started with "Where the River Shannon
Flows." And so they weren't really blues singers, per se. They could sing
anything. It didn't matter to them whether it was the blues or not. But then
when the blues came into vogue after Mamie Smith's recording of "Crazy Blues"
sold a lot of copies, then of course there was a concentration on the blues.
But basically most of the singers you would not term them as blues singers.
They were Tin Pan Alley singers who sang blues.

So it was not difficult for someone like Bessie Smith to take "After You've
Gone" or any of those Tin Pan Alley songs. And in later life, towards the
end, in the beginning of the '30s, when she realized that the times were
changing and tastes were changing, the blues had had their run, she started
singing--and I'm so sorry we never saw any recordings of it--songs like "Tea
for Two" and "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes."

GROSS: Wow. I would have liked to hear that.

Mr. ALBERTSON: Yes, right.

GROSS: Well, let's hear one of the Tin Pan Alley songs she did record. Do
you want to choose a favorite?

Mr. ALBERTSON: Well, I love "After You've Gone." I think she does a
wonderful job. You know, even when she does songs that are not blues, they
almost sound like blues, the way she treats them. And I think "After You've
Gone" is a good example of that.

GROSS: Well, let's hear it. This is Bessie Smith.

(Soundbite of "After You've Gone")

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) Now listen honey while I say how can you tell me that
you're going away, don't say that we must part, don't break my aching heart.
You know I love you true for many years, love you night and day. How can you
leave me? Can't you see my tears. So listen while I say, after you've gone
and left me crying, after you've gone, there's no denying you'll feel blue,
you'll feel sad, you'll miss the dearest pal you ever had. There'll come a
time, now don't forget it, there'll come a time when you'll regret it. Some
day when you grow lonely your heart will break like mine and you'll want me
only. After you've gone, after you've gone away. After you've gone...

GROSS: Bessie Smith recorded in 1927. We'll talk more with her biographer,
Chris Albertson, after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Chris Albertson. He's just written a revised edition of
his 1972 biography of Bessie Smith.

Another new piece of Bessie Smith's biography that you've presented in your
biography of her is that Bessie Smith was bisexual. How did you learn that?

Mr. ALBERTSON: I learned that originally from Ruby Smith, Bessie's niece
by marriage, who toured with her for 14 years and told me all kinds of stories
about what was going on backstage. And then, of course, I also spoke to
Bessie's sister-in-law, Maud Smith, who was married to Clarence Smith,
Bessie's brother, who was a comedian with the show and sort of a manager at
one point. And she confirmed all that. And I've subsequently met some older
Harlem residents who remembered Bessie as being a lesbian, but she wasn't
really a lesbian; she just had a huge sexual appetite, and it didn't matter to
her it was male or female.

GROSS: Bessie Smith's husband was Jack Gee. What was their marriage like?

Mr. ALBERTSON: Well, you heard the expression `roller coaster'? Well, this
was a roller coaster. You know, he was a very straight-laced guy. He was a
night watchman in Philadelphia who liked to pretend that he had been a
policeman, even had his picture taken in a sort of a policeman's uniform. And
he never understood show business life. He met Bessie one night; he heard her
at Horan's(ph) and he liked her, and they finally got together. But then when
they married and he came on the road and he saw the way things went backstage
and the sort of the hedonistic life they led, he was appalled by it. But he
loved the money, and he saw the money coming in, so that justified everything.

But he still never really went along with show business life. And so he
didn't like all that, you know, drinking and partying. So when he was around,
Bessie didn't drink. And like Ruby said, sometimes when he was around, if you
mentioned something, a party you'd all been to or something, in front of him,
Bessie would shut you up because she didn't even want to talk about these
things when he was there. But then the minute he left--and he used to go on
these "hunting trips," quote-unquote, and he was always hunting, and then
Bessie would let loose and have her various affairs and so forth. And the
minute he showed up--and he always showed up sort of with a surprise; I mean,
he never announced it in advance; he would just suddenly be there--and then
the whole show was afraid of him because they would have a fight and then they
would calm down the next day, and then she would be all right until he left

GROSS: What was Bessie Smith's image like on stage?

Mr. ALBERTSON: From all accounts--of course, I never saw her, unfortunately.
But from all accounts, there was something mesmerizing about her. She just
had an enormous presence. And one thing that people always point out to me is
that her movements when she sang were very subtle. You know, she'd raise an
eyebrow; she'd shift a hip just a little bit, you know. They were never--for
instance, I saw a Broadway show called "Me and Bessie" with Linda Hopkins, and
everything was exaggerated; all the movements were exaggerated. But that's
not how Bessie was. Bessie just was very, very, very sexy, they said.

GROSS: Now Bessie Smith is considered a blues singer, but on her recordings
it's not like she's being accompanied by Mississippi delta bottleneck
guitarists. She's mostly accompanied by jazz musicians, people like Fletcher
Henderson's band and Louis Armstrong. Can you talk a little bit about that
pairing of Bessie Smith and jazz musicians?

Mr. ALBERTSON: Well, it's because they didn't really distinguish--I mean, it
was black music. You know, black music was black music. When you appeared in
vaudeville in these theaters, you had--they were jazz musicians; they weren't,
you know, dance band musicians in the pit. So it was just a natural thing.
Of course, Bessie did make some records with out-and-out dance band musicians,
terrible accompaniments, but she overcame them always. But she mostly was
accompanied by jazz people. I mean, you know, Clarence Williams was
considered a jazz person, but he wasn't much of a pianist. James P. Johnson,
on the other hand, was one of the, you know, most fantastic pianists of that
period and was the perfect accompaniment for her. But Bessie didn't always
choose her--or, in fact, she may never have chosen her accompaniments; I
haven't found any evidence that she ever did. But Frank Walker did.

GROSS: Her producer.


GROSS: How popular was Bessie Smith's music when she died?

Mr. ALBERTSON: Bessie Smith's music was not very popular when she died. This
was 1937. You know, it was swing music, so it wasn't about the blues. Still
probably popular in the South, in rural areas of the South, but basically not
that popular. And Bessie knew it, and that's why she was changing her whole
approach to the music and moving with the new trends.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. ALBERTSON: You're very welcome. I enjoyed it.

GROSS: Chris Albertson. He has just written a revised and expanded edition
of his 1972 biography of Bessie Smith.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. Here's Bessie Smith and Louis
Armstrong recorded in 1925.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) I hate to see the evening sun go down. I hate to see
the evening sun go down. It makes me think of all my life going 'round.
Feelin' tomorrow...


GROSS: Coming up, actress, director and dancer Rhodessa Jones. She's founder
of The Medea Project, a performance workshop for women in prison. Critics of
the Supreme Court decision to overturn the Texas sodomy law have used the
expression `slippery slope.' Our linguist Geoff Nunberg has been tracking the

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Rhodessa Jones discusses her stage work, her life and
her work with incarcerated women

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest Rhodessa Jones is an actress, director and dancer. She's the
co-artistic director of the San Francisco performance company Cultural
Odyssey. Her brother is the choreographer and dancer Bill T. Jones.
Rhodessa Jones is best known for her one-woman shows, like "Hot Flashes, Power
Surges and Private Summers," and "Big Butt Girls, Hard-Headed Women," which
she'll bring to the National Black Theater Festival next month. "Big Butt
Girls" is a series of monologues based on the stories of women in prison.
Jones has worked with many women in prison through the Medea Project, a
program of workshops for incarcerated women, which she founded and directs.
She often talks about her life to the women to help get them talking about
theirs. A heads-up to parents: Parts of our discussion may not be
appropriate for young children.

You said that one of the parts of your life that you like to share with the
women in prison that you work with is the fact that you became a mother at the
age of 16. I imagine a lot of the women in prison you've worked with became
mothers at a young age...

Ms. RHODESSA JONES (Artist and Writer): Yeah.

GROSS: ...probably even younger than you.

Ms. JONES: Yeah.

GROSS: And this might be much too personal, so you can just tell me to back
off on this one, but I know one of the characters that you're working on now
is Rubber Girl, and it's going to be a very kind of pro-condom type of
character. When you were 16 and got pregnant, did you think at all about
birth control?

Ms. JONES: Oh, no. We're talking 1964. I was in love. The father of my
daughter was attending Cornell University. I was so impressed that he was a
college boy, and he even said to me--he put Vaseline on his penis, if I may
say that on the radio, and said to me that I wasn't going to get pregnant, you
know, because I was very afraid of getting pregnant just because all around
me women didn't seem very happy, you know, women that were married. And that
had been not a part of my plan for myself. But this boy assured me he had
been to college, and he was not going to let anything happen to me. This is
almost verbatim, you know. And so at 16, no. But my body stopped. That was
the only child I ever had, and I think that it really had to do with how
traumatic that was for me.

GROSS: You mean you couldn't have children after that?

Ms. JONES: No, never again.

GROSS: Wow. Huh.

Ms. JONES: Never again.

GROSS: Well...

Ms. JONES: I think it had to do with, `I'm never going to be caught in this
situation again.'

GROSS: Was that just as well, as far as you were concerned, that you never
got pregnant again?

Ms. JONES: Yes. Yes. I'd fallen in love later in my life, and there's been
a couple of men that maybe. But my daughter is a joy and my granddaughter's a
joy, and to have three or four kids, oh, my God, you know, just feeding them
and taking care of them and rearing them is a lot, you know.

GROSS: But when you figured out that Vaseline wasn't a particularly effective
form of birth control, you must have been furious with this guy.

Ms. JONES: I was just devastated because then he did really a mean thing to
me, and I think it was he implied I was just a loose girl, you know.
Obviously I had to be loose because I'd had sex with him. And he named a
couple of people that, you know, he supposedly had heard--you know, it was
very painful and very sad, you know.

GROSS: When people use their age and their college education to lie to you,
that's a scary thing.

Ms. JONES: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. And I so wanted him to be the one, you know. I
don't know where it came from. Maybe it's just my mother and her caustic
pride, but I never just wanted any simple little guy. You know, to meet a
colored boy in 1964 who was going to school, a middle-class boy, he had had
uncles who had gone to West Point. I mean, he was that kind of a boy. But in
support of him, I think he was just as scared because later his father said
some terrible things to him in my presence about laying down with nigger gals,
and we were all black, you know. So it's back to self-loathing and, you know,
and an attempt at a deeper understanding of what life brings us, yeah.

GROSS: How did your mother find out you were pregnant?

Ms. JONES: She came in the bathroom and I was in the bathtub, and my mother
had had 17 pregnancies, and 12 of us lived, and so my mother just took one
look at me and knew that I was pregnant. And that was scary. She was so
upset and so furious and disappointed, you know. And she wanted me to marry
this boy right away. She wanted me to marry him, and I just said that, you
know, `Mom, I don't think he wants to marry me, and if he doesn't want to
marry me, I don't want to marry him.' And later she said to me, `When you
told your father and I that, we talked about it till deep in the night.' And
I think for my mother, this woman, it made some sense, you know, on some level
that why should I be stuck with some guy who did not want to be with me. I
was already stuck with a kid, and they had agreed to help me take care of the

GROSS: Did you...

Ms. JONES: So I think she understood.

GROSS: Did you want to have the baby? This was 1964, did you say?

Ms. JONES: My daughter was born in 1965.

GROSS: OK. So abortion wasn't legal yet.

Ms. JONES: No. Well, you know...

GROSS: You could have gotten an illegal abortion.

Ms. JONES: Yeah.

GROSS: Was that an option you thought about? You could have given the baby
away. Was that an option you thought about?

Ms. JONES: I thought about giving the baby away, but you've got remember I
was a country girl. My mother and father had been migrant workers who had
settled in upstate New York from Florida. I lived up on a dirt road. I was
really a tomboy, you know, who had sort of fallen in love because at that time
I think all girls are in love with love, you know. And so at that same time,
pregnancy, you know, just was like, `What?' You know. And it was like, `I'm
what?' And I mean, I was already like four or five months pregnant when this
little girl, who was much young but more worldly, told me where babies came
out of, and I was terrified.

GROSS: Oh, you didn't know?

Ms. JONES: No. I mean, I didn't know. I just didn't know. I mean, I would
have never have had sex with this boy with the Vaseline if I had had more
information. And my poor mother, I think, was terrified that if she didn't
talk about it, we wouldn't get caught. So, no, abortion--a friend of mine, a
man I knew, had agreed to take me to New Jersey for an abortion, but that was
really totally farfetched. And my mother told my father, and they both just
let me know that we were keeping that baby, you know. And my father told me
that, you know, `You'll understand by and by why this happened to you.' And
he said to me, `Please don't give away my blood.' He said, `If you need to
move on, your mother and I will keep her, and if you decide to stay, I will
share everything with you. If I have two grains of rice, you'll get one, that
baby gets the other, but please don't talk about giving her away.'

GROSS: So did your parents help you raise the baby?

Ms. JONES: Yes. You know, I was able to go back to school.

GROSS: That's great.

Ms. JONES: I went back to high school. Yeah. My mother was adamant that I
had to go back to school.

GROSS: Did they let you? You know, sometimes they throw you out if you're

Ms. JONES: Oh, this is--God bless them--Wayland, New York, Wayland Central
School, and so I was told by the principal that I could go to school as long
as I could climb the stairs, you know. And I went home after Thanksgiving
vacation, and I did not come back until after the first of February. My
daughter was born January 10th. So it was a very central school in a very
small hamlet in upstate New York, and so I think I just kind of blew their
minds 'cause my mother said I was going to school, so I went to school. I was
showing and I went to school, you know. There was no way around that. Yeah.

GROSS: My guest is actor, dancer and director Rhodessa Jones. We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is actor, dancer and director Rhodessa Jones. She founded
the Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women.

I know you've been thinking a lot about what it means to get older--not
elderly, but older--because after you passed 50, you started doing this show
about turning 50 and about going through menopause.

Ms. JONES: Yes, "Hot Flashes, Power Surges and Private Summers."

GROSS: Exactly. That's the title of the piece.

Ms. JONES: Yes.

GROSS: And are there things you promised yourself you wouldn't obsess over
when you reached 50, and did you fulfill your promise or not?

Ms. JONES: I think there's things you can't help, you know. I mean, getting
up, just getting up out of bed after sleeping all night, getting up and how
hard it is, you know, like physically, you know, to sit up, you know, it's so
different, especially for a physical body like mine to realize, `Oh my gosh,
what is that? Oh, I'm stiff.' You know, this kind of a thing. So I work
very hard. I just came from the gym. You know, I just ran over here from
Gold's, and I'm in the gym. But it's more because I want to be able to carry
my water and chop my own wood, if I'm lucky to live as long as my mother has.
But, no, I didn't obsess too much because I'm lucky. I'm youthful. The art,
my work keeps me in the mix, you know. You know, I had this kid so early
that, you know, I'm already a grandmother, and, you know, so my life is
designed in such a way as to sort of protect me to some degree, you know. And
I don't age like somebody who would obsess ages. I haven't aged that way.

GROSS: Hmm. In addition to your autobiographical piece about turning 50, you
much earlier did an autobiographical piece about dancing at a peep show to
support your daughter...

Ms. JONES: Yes.

GROSS: ...after you became a mother. And that's an interesting way for a
dancer to start. What a strange relationship you must have with the men on
the other side of the wall or the peephole or whatever when they pay their
money and you're dancing naked for them.

Ms. JONES: Yeawh. And they're very--well, this is back in the day. We're
talking 1978, I guess, '79.

GROSS: Oh, so your daughter was already in her early teens?

Ms. JONES: My daughter was like 13, 14. My daughter made all my tapes for
me to dance to. My daughter introduced me to Prince. You know, she
introduced me to LTD, Bob Seger's Silver Bullet Band.

GROSS: Well, how did she feel about mom being a stripper?

Ms. JONES: Well, see, I just always felt like I had to tell her. I had to
tell her that, `What I'm doing, I'm going to work. I'm working downtown, you
know.' So she got it from me. I told my brothers 'cause I wanted them to
know where I was. I wanted them to know that, you know, if they want to check
on me, they knew where I was, you know. It was like I was making money, you
know. It was like, you know, I wasn't a prostitute. I was making the most
money I could make fast as I could, you know.

But back to the men, I think men are afraid of women. They're definitely
afraid of vaginas, you know. That's what I found out working down there.
They have no idea what they want from women, you know. They're not...

GROSS: Would they talk with you on the other side of the...

Ms. JONES: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: What was it? Was it like a peephole or a wall?

Ms. JONES: It was a peep show, you know, where you have a curtain and you put
money in the little machine. The curtain opens and you're sitting behind
Plexiglas. And he can talk into the machine there or into the telephone.
Some booths had a telephone, you know. And so they're saying really silly
stuff or very violent, mean, dark stuff, which is the only way they can get
off, you know, is to be abusive or to just be silly.

I always liked the guys who were a little silly, or I liked younger guys who,
you know, had never--like sailors. San Francisco, you know, is a port town,
and I remember this young sailor coming in. He must have been 18. I always
tell people he was, like, from Podunk, Iowa, or something. And he came in and
his friends all opened the window, and there was this colored girl sitting
there. And he came back. He said, `You sure are pretty,' you know. Just
this purity, you know. And we had a great time that night. You know, he just
hung out with me. It's like he'd just spend his little money in there, and he
had never ever been in the company of a colored girl before, you know. And he
kept telling me how pretty I was, you know.

GROSS: Since you are in the theater, part of what you do is observe people
and transform your own personality. You must have been thinking about this,
watching the guys relate to you and talk dirty to you. Were you studying them
as they were studying you?

Ms. JONES: Yes. I was writing a lot of things down. I'd start to formulate
questions because I wanted to make a performance about it. And I kept
thinking `What's erotic?' And `What do men want from women, and what do women
want from men?' And `Why is race and sexism--why are they such perfect
bedfellows?' I mean, things people would say, things that women backstage
would say, you know, 'cause I was a beauty. I mean, legs for days, you know,
I mean, the butt, you know, long before all this was popular, I mean, you
know, like I had said I was a farm girl. And I was already doing gymnastics
and trapeze work, so I was very strong. I could jump up and down in those
high-heel shoes. I could kick, I could roll. And I had this great Donna
Summer wig that I wore. And, you know, I'd always open my show with Muddy
Waters. I mean, that was how I opened the show, you know. "I Just Want To
Make Love To You" was like Lily's theme music, you know. And...

GROSS: Lily was your persona.

Ms. JONES: Yeah. Lily Overstreet From New Orleans was the full name. And
sometimes the things that girls would say backstage, you know. Women can be
so mean to each other, too, and also young white women. Again, we're talking
1978. You know, it was around the same time that Moscone was murdered in San
Francisco, Harvey Milk, so the air was just electric. But I really wanted to
know who the women were backstage as well. And the men outside was like just
watching men come and go, and, I mean, there were priests, you know, there
were guys getting off from work, there were lost boys. It was amazing.

GROSS: You know, you had this experience of, like, dancing nude in peep shows
to support yourself and your daughter, and instead of walking away from this
experience feeling demeaned, it sounds to me like you walked away thinking,
like, `Well, that was pretty interesting. I got a lot out of it. I'm going
to do, you know...

Ms. JONES: Yes.

GROSS: ...a theater show based on it.' Did...

Ms. JONES: Well, you know, it's a journey. It's all an experience.

GROSS: Well, did you walk into that experience knowing that you'd be able to
walk away from it feeling like you were richer and better off because of it as
opposed to feeling demeaned as a result of it?

Ms. JONES: Well, I didn't. I knew that there was a story to tell. When I
first went and applied for the job and it was all lesbians running the show
backstage, the Mafia maybe owned the building but I think the lesbians had
been brought in from Baltimore and they were great. And they were the ones
who were hiring people. They were the women who had to look at me when I took
my clothes off and they said, `You are beautiful.' They didn't want me to
wear wigs. You know, they were saying--one woman said, `You look so much more
dignified without it.' And I said, `Honey, this is not dignity. I'm trying
to pay my rent down here.' But, no. And, you know, I was not sure about what
was going to happen other than I knew it was going to be a great adventure,
this nude dancing.

GROSS: You've worked with a lot of women in prison, teaching them certain
theater techniques, trying to turn their stories into monologues, theatrical
monologues. What do you think they can get out of that?

Ms. JONES: Like, I think that what I've really learned how to do is impart
transformative work, transformative technique, that, you know, you can
reinvent yourself to the good of yourself. And I think that that's what
they've been able to, you know, get out of working with me is that we start
out very, very simply, you know. There's a series of questions to answer, and
then we have conversations. We talk about who we are, who we really are,
where we want to go, where we've been. And then we create theater loosely
based on a myth that I might find but really entrenched in who they are.

And as we work from four to six months I am saying constantly, you know, just
two months ago you couldn't do that, or two months ago you wouldn't have said
that. We have video that happens constantly. They can see themselves. So
it's about transformation, and I think that they touch upon that, you know,
even the ones that don't make it. I see them in the street, and they might
not be able to remember me, but they'll say, `Remember that class we had in
jail?' thinking I'm an inmate. And they said, `Well, you know, I still do the
hand dance stuff. I still do that when I need to just calm down,' you know.
So it's just much more lifesaving stuff that I hope I leave with them, you

GROSS: Rhodessa Jones, I thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. JONES: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Rhodessa Jones is the co-artistic director of the San Francisco
performance company Cultural Odyssey and the director of the Medea Project:
Theater for Incarcerated Women. She'll perform her shows "Big Butt Girls,
Hard-Headed Women" and "They Speak Though Us" at the National Black Theater
Festival in Winston-Salem next month.

Coming up, linguist Geoff Nunberg on the slippery slope. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Commentary: Use of the expression `slippery slope' and the
rhetoric behind the phrase

The Supreme Court decision overturning the Texas sodomy law had critics
complaining that the country was on a slippery slope that would lead to the
legalization of everything from prostitution to adultery. Our linguist, Geoff
Nunberg, has been tracking the expression `slippery slope' and the rhetorical
work it does.


I read last week that Democrats were complaining that the administration's
prescription drug bill puts the nation on the slippery slope toward Medicare
privatization, that the dismantling of West Bank outposts puts Israel on a
slippery slope leading to its destruction and that the ownership of a Women's
NBA team by a Connecticut casino sets the sport on a slippery slope toward
control by gamblers. And, not surprisingly, the metaphor was ubiquitous in
condemnations of the Supreme Court's overturning of the Texas sodomy law.
Jerry Falwell said that it set the nation down a slippery slope in which
courts might approve bestiality, prostitution and the use of narcotics. To
judge from the news stories, the entire nation is coming to resemble San
Francisco after a heavy rain.

In the press, the phrase `slippery slope' is more than five times as common as
it was 20 years ago. It's a way of warning of the dire effects of some course
of action without actually having to criticize the action itself. No wonder
it's a favorite ploy of hypocrites: `Not that there's anything wrong with A,
mind you, but A will lead you to B and then C, and before you know it we'll
be up to our armpits in Z.'

That argument goes by various names. The phrase `slippery slope' dates from
the mid-19th century, around the same time that people started to talk about
letting the camel's nose into the tent. That's an allusion to a fable about a
camel who asks if he can put his nose into a workman's tent to keep it from
the cold and goes on to insert his shoulders, then his legs and so on until he
dispossesses the inhabitant.

Then there's the domino effect, an analogy that Dwight Eisenhower used in 1954
to justify US intervention in Vietnam. Or people talk about the thin end of
the wedge, the snowball effect, the doomsday scenario or opening the
floodgates. One way or another, it always comes down to `God knows where it
will end.'

The rhetoric textbooks usually describe the slippery slope as a logical
fallacy, but sometimes it can be a reasonable form of argument. When you say
that A puts us on a slippery slope to B, you might mean only that A will make
it cheaper or easier to implement B. The UCLA law Professor Eugene Volokh
gives the example of installing video cameras at every intersection. That may
make it easier to deter street crime, but it also provides the government with
the means to perform more sinister forms of surveillance.

Or sometimes the slippery slope is invoked in the course of an argument about
the impossibility of making clear moral distinctions. If it's hard to draw
the line between A and B, then how can you accept one and reject the other?
That's an argument you're always hearing from abortion critics: Where does a
fetus end and a child begin? It's an instance of what Greek philosophers
called the fallacy of the heap. If you start with a heap of sand and you take
one grain away, you're still left with a heap, but if you keep repeating the
process, you wind up saying that a single grain of sand is a heap all by
itself. That's what comes of assuming that if a distinction isn't clear-cut,
it can't be drawn at all.

The Supreme Court justices love to torment attorneys with slippery slope
examples in an effort to get them to clarify their positions. It's what gives
the court transcripts the air of absurdist theater. But the technique is more
disconcerting when it moves from the hypothetical to assertions of fact, the
way it did in Justice Scalia's dissent in the Texas case. According to
Scalia, once you start throwing out laws that reflect the moral choices of the
majority, you undermine the basis for state laws against bigamy, same-sex
marriage, adult incest, prostitution, masturbation, adultery and bestiality,
among others. I have the feeling that Scalia had a great time drawing up that
list, but it's hard to believe he really buys the logic that the law can't
distinguish between masturbation and bestiality beyond saying that many people
disapprove of both of them. At least it's hard to see Scalia voting to
overturn some state anti-bestiality statute on the grounds that the Texas
sodomy decision leaves him no choice.

But the real problem with slippery-slope arguments isn't their logic; it's the
rhetorical games people play with them. They have a way of turning every
decision into an unprecedented step into the void. In theory, after all, you
could use Scalia's logic to run the metaphor uphill. You could just as easily
say that refusing to overturn the Texas statute would open the way to laws
restricting nose rings, public dancing or other things that voters might find
morally unacceptable.

But nobody ever brings up the slippery slope to argue for a change in law or
policy. It's always an argument for maintaining the status quo. The English
legal scholar Glanville Williams once called the slippery slope `the trump
card of the traditionalist,' because no proposal for reform is immune to it.
That comes with a metaphor of describing a decision as stepping off the edge
of a slope. But law and policy decisions are rarely that dramatic; it's more
like carving our way along a hillside, making small adjustments as we go. Or
to mix the metaphor, we all agree that we want to keep the camel's nose and
haunches inside the tent and leave his nether parts out in the desert. The
question always comes down to where we want to put the hump.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at Stanford University's Center for the
Study of Language and Information and the author of "The Way We Talk Now."

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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