Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Ethel Waters: "Bread and Gravy"

Shocking, shameful, unconscionable that I've been blogging for over a year without posting any Ethel Waters.

Although Brooklyn Girl, to whose nutritional knowledge I owe my health, would not approve of the diet limned by the title, this neglected Hoagy Carmichael song is a favorite of mine. The only other recording of it that I know, a stunningly beautiful one, is by the late Barbara Lea.

Bread and Gravy could easily have remained undiscovered. It was written in 1935, shortly before Carmichael severed connection with publisher Ralph Peer, but it wasn't until 1939 that Peer got around to copyrighting it, along with some other Carmichael songs he had on hand. Fortunately, the publisher made the inspired decision to have Ethel Waters record it for Bluebird. The accompanying band is led by Waters' then-husband Eddie Mallory, with Shirley Clay on trumpet, Tyree Glenn, vibes, Danny Barker, guitar, and Milt Hinton (still sorely missed by BG, by me, and by everyone who ever met him) on bass.
Ethel Waters once said, "A song is a story--that's how it is to me--and I sing it so it tells the story." I like the way Dick Sudhalter, in his Carmichael biography Stardust Melody, has described the story of Bread and Gravy: "[It] celebrates a happiness achieved after times of poverty and slender means, and sustained by faith. The protagonist is black, but the vision, the 'message,' applies to anyone struggling to keep his head up in Depression-era America. Hang on, it seems to say; work hard, and the good life will be yours."


  1. It's the combination of the song's muted exultation and her subtle acting that wins us: there are many other songs that say, "Look, we have come through!" but she was a great actress even before she was on Broadway.