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The Artist’s Impression: Ethel Waters as Mimic

The Artist’s Impression: Ethel Waters as Mimic

(p.128) 6 The Artist’s Impression: Ethel Waters as Mimic
The Voice as Something More
Laurie Stras
University of Chicago Press

The voice has been theorized variously as an expression of collectivity, of individuality, of the raw materiality of the body, and of the practices of culture and identity. The work of the vocal impressionist, however, disrupts the relationship between voice and body, and problematizes the voice’s articulation of a unique, embodied identity, even while it is paradoxically dependent on it. On the 1925 Columbia side, “Maybe Not At All,” the vaudeville singer and actress Ethel Waters performs as herself, as Clara Smith, and as “the Empress,” Bessie Smith, altering not only her vocal production but also the feel of the song via melodic and lyrical interpolations. This chapter considers how singers learned their craft through imitation, and what the implications of phonography are on that process. It examines the paradox of mimicry in relation to the blueswomen of early 1920s America, and discusses how imitation might have contributed to their success, individually and collectively. Finally, it observes how constructed vocality contributes to the formation of individual identity, encompassing race and sex, with the capacity to grant both social and political currency to the singer.

Keywords:   Ethel Waters, vocality, mimicry, identity, blueswomen, singer, vocal production, race, 1920s

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