The longstanding definition of the blues has been one of hardship. Never mind how accurate that portrayal has been in reality, especially given that some of the genre’s most arresting music has been nothing sort of jubilant. The blues, as we have come to view them, have been marked by loss, solitude and no small degree of suffering.
Most of all, and this is one of the few points many major blues stylists tend to agree on, you have to live through life’s experiences to credibly sing about them.
If that it is truly the mark of vital, breathing blues music, then Janiva Magness is a scholar.
Just listen to her recordings, such as the forthcoming What Love Will Do album, her debut with the celebrated Chicago blues label Alligator Records after a nearly three-decade career. On it, you will hear funk fuming with brassy soul. You will hear deep pocket Southern grooves and chunks of churchy cool. You hear will tunes by Al Green (I’m Glad You’re Mine) and Annie Lennox (Bitter Pill) re-tooled to suit the sass and sensitivity of Magness’ fearless singing.
But look at Magness’ story, to the life that led her to music, and you discover a saga of survival.
A lost love? A broken heart? It’s nowhere near that simple. Magness has a tale to tell that is operatic in scale. And in recent years, she has been discussing it freely with lawmakers, care givers and victims of the same life circumstances she experienced.
That’s because Magness has discovered, in the midst of an extensive but still mounting blues career, the power to heal and the ability to share that resulting strength with others.
“There is a saying that tells us that which is your greatest tragedy can become your greatest asset,” Magness said. “I don’t know if my story would be my greatest asset. But it has awkwardly and unpredictably turned into a gift, one where I can now try to help other people as a result. Because I came out the other side.”
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At the age of 13, Magness’ mother committed suicide. A year later she ran away from home, lived on the street and began drinking and using drugs. During the two years that followed, she passed through 12 different foster homes and three psychiatric facilities. Just before Magness’ 16th birthday, her father killed himself. Following a subsequent pregnancy, she gave her daughter up for adoption. Her own thoughts of suicide were frequent.
She was finally placed with a single mother of five children who worked as a drug and alcohol counselor. To Magness, she became a mentor that helped piece together a shattered life. By the age of 18, Magness began re-examining a childhood loves of blues and R&B by auditioning for singing engagements.
Flash forward to a far brighter present. Magness has starred in the West Coast production of the Tony-nominated It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues, has worked as a vocal sidekick to such varied blues and pop giants as Brian Setzer, R.L. Burnside and Jimmy Buffett and has recorded a string of critically acclaimed albums that led to her Alligator Records.
Magness also reconnected with her daughter. At age 51, the singer is now a proud grandmother.
“I can say to you honestly that I’m not hardwired for success in any arena,” Magness said. “I’m simply not. I’m obviously a fighter. But it’s been frightening because I’m not used to the idea of having a good life. And I have a remarkably good life for someone who came out of what I came out of. Experiences, I believe, form and shape our personalities.”
Living through the turmoil of her teen years was one thing. To publicly discuss her past was quite another. Initially, that wasn’t part of her new life. But that changed after talks with her publicist and long time friend Michael McClune. That’s when Magness realized she was in a position to help others.
“Michael knew me well enough to say, ‘You really should consider going public with your story.’ I was like, ‘I don’t think so.’ I mean, I never felt it was anybody’s business. But he thought I could help people. So I thought about it for well over a year because I really wanted to consider everything that might happen and that might be asked of me. That’s when I decided there was great merit in what Michael was saying.
“But here’s the prize I didn’t consider. Sharing my story with other people has helped me heal more.”
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Today, Magness balances duties as a blues artist with her work as national spokesperson for Casey Family Programs and their promotion of National Foster Care Month – which just happens to be May.
That means as she gears up for intensive summer touring behind the June 10 release of What Love Will Do, she is working just as aggressively as a public speaker for government organizations, care facilities and anyone who can benefit from her core message that one adult can make a substantial difference in the life of troubled child.
For Magness, such engagements focus on a very different means of performance to a very different audience. But the method of communication, she said, isn’t that removed from performing a blues tune at a club or festival.
“I’ve been taking money for singing songs for 33 years now,” Magness said. “The public speaking is something that became new to my world in the last couple of years. But in my experience and in my opinion, an audience is looking for a connection, whether it’s an audience in a club or an assembly of legislators. They are looking to relate. People want human connection.
“The experiences in the early part of my life no longer define me. But they are part of my landscape that feeds my music and informs my craft.”
(above photo of Janiva Magness by Paul Natkin)
Janiva Magness and Griffin House perform at 7 tonight at the Kentucky Theatre, 214 E. Main St. as part of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. Tickets are $10. Call (859) 252-8888.