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Apprenticeship shines light on blues, black gospel history

August 5, 2018

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — To many, the blues is a genre of sad songs, but to Doris Fields, aka “Lady D,” singing the blues is like freedom.

“Everything, anything that you want to talk about or you need to get out, you can do in blues,” Fields said.

The musician’s love for the blues began in 2002, when she discovered its rich history while writing a play based on the life of Bessie Smith, a 1920s-era blues singer.

“I started really making the connection to blues and R&B, and the progression of black music throughout the years,” Fields said. “Blues is at the root of all of it.”

Known as West Virginia’s First Lady of Soul, Fields travels around the state and across the country to share her passion for singing and songwriting. But it’s the history behind the rhythm which she keeps in the back of her mind with every performance.

Through an apprenticeship program with the West Virginia Humanities Council, Fields is now sharing this knowledge with a fellow blues and gospel singer, Xavier Oglesby, also from Beckley.

Despite the apprenticeship’s focus on blues and black gospel music, the pair has not delved into singing much. They mostly converse during sessions, discussing origins of the blues and how it relates to their lives.

“You can take a form of music and like what you hear, but if you don’t know the history behind the music, you don’t appreciate it as much,” Oglesby said, sitting in the living room at Fields’ home during one of their sessions.

“We as black people, we created this music. It teaches you to really appreciate what our history is in this country and the contributions that we have made. I value the blues. When she told me this history, it taught me to value that music more.”

The master-apprentice pair actually began singing together in the late 1990s, when they met while working for Theater West Virginia in Beckley. The two performed as husband and wife in a play for several years.

“Most nights we got a standing ovation, so it must have been OK,” Oglesby said.

Both Oglesby and Fields started singing at very young ages.

Oglesby, who grew up the son of a preacher, remembers singing with his mother and siblings, and in the church choir.

“One day, she just told me to sing high, told my brother to sing in the middle and told everybody else to sing down low,” he said. “I don’t know how we understood what she was talking about but she was teaching us the beginnings of how to make music in harmonies.”

Music has always been in his soul, he said.

“You take somebody like Doris or myself, and you see music has just always been there, and it’s a part of our DNA,” he said.

Fields remembers getting her start at three years of age, while watching “American Bandstand” with her grandmother on Sunday afternoons. At 7, she started singing in the choir at church.

“I’ve never wanted to do anything else but sing,” she said.

In Beckley, she sings in a band that covers R&B, blues, reggae and jazz. Outside of the area, though, she’s mostly known as a blues singer.

She speaks at local schools and during each performance to educate children on the history of the blues.

“It’s progressed down the line from chants and field hollers on the plantations, to work songs, to jazz and ragtime and soul and funk and all of that rock and roll,” she said. “Blues was at the root of all that music.”

In original songs, Fields writes from experience and shares memories of growing up a coal miner’s daughter. She was “officially” born in Charleston, but her father would argue she began her life in the coalfields.

Singing the blues gave Fields the chance to write songs with phrases her father would use.

One begins, “West Virginia, back on Cabin Creek, lived a woman, Lord, that woman could sing. She was 35, wild as a woman could be, but nobody paid her mind, said a sinner was she.”

“That first verse right there sort of summed up my feelings about Cabin Creek and West Virginia,” she said. “That song meant a lot to me because it encompassed a lot of things, a lot of feelings and experiences that people don’t know but I do, and so all of that is in the song.”

Sharing these honest, raw emotions and being able to write about any experience or subject is what makes her feel free, she said.

“That’s the thing about blues I think, as opposed to R&B,” she said. “When I think of R&B, I think of love songs, ballads, that kind of thing, but blues is everything. There’s no holds. Anything that you want to talk about or you need to get out, you can do in blues.”

For Oglesby, this also means sharing experiences of growing up in coal camps.

“Gospel — and especially black gospel and blues — it’s a part of your culture and where you live every day, and it’s just telling a story of hardships, and sometimes it tells stories of trouble in your relationship,” he said. “It’s a part of where you’re from.”

A song of his begins, “When I die, I close my eyes in West Virginia, no place on earth this country boy would rather be. And when they put me in the ground all my kinfolk standing round, I hope they put a big old lump of coal down at my feet, so when I stand before the Lord upon that day with pride and joy, I want the Lord to hear me say, ‘What a thrill it was to be footloose and fancy-free, a big old country boy like me from West Virginia, a big old country boy like me.’”

For Oglesby, singing the blues and gospel means keeping his heritage alive. Growing up in southern West Virginia, the blues was not a genre he remembers hearing on the radio often.

“West Virginia is predominantly a white state, and if you really look at the stats now and the demographics of it, you would believe that it was always that way,” he said. “But there was a time when people were coming from all parts of the south to work in the mines, and they brought the music with them. That history needs to be told, it needs to be brought to the forefront.

“That’s what makes what she does so great and what I do so great, it keeps us reminded of our history here.”

Fields and Oglesby will sing at “Jazz & Blues in the Ville” on Aug. 18 in Fayetteville. The program will be held 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Court Street.

More announcements of performances together are to come.

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Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, http://wvgazettemail.com.

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