Some of the most famous musical artists of the early 20th century were “in the life” – meaning gay, bisexual or transgender – and they sang about this life, too, in a variety of genres such as blues, early jazz, ballads, and pop. Sarah Kilborne has dug deep into this rich vein of musical and social history and come up with her one-woman show, The Lavender Blues: A Showcase of Queer Music Before World War II, which she will perform at Club Helsinki Hudson on Friday, April 7, at 8pm. The concert celebrates the release of a live recording of “The Lavender Blues.”
Kilborne’s cabaret introduces us to a little-known yet revolutionary moment in music history when pioneering artists sang boldly about sexual and gender fluidity, something daring even for today – and as deliciously fun and inspiring as ever.
Kilborne digs up such long-forgotten gems as “Sissy Blues“, which gospel composer Thomas Dorsey wrote for Ma Rainey – a song about a woman who comes home and finds her husband in bed with another man.
Kilborne’s “Lavender Blues” – which features music from the vaudeville era, the Harlem Renaissance, Tin Pan Alley, and Weimar Germany – has been chosen one of 2017’s “exciting new works in development” by the Association of Performing Arts Presenters. From such legends as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Gladys Bentley, and Josephine Baker, Kilborne performs songs – written almost a century ago – that describe what it is like to be non-binary. The themes in the music are as emblematic of yesterday as they are relevant today, addressing issues of masculinity, femininity, same-sex love, cross-dressing, the desire for freedom from prejudice and more.
Kilborne is an author, performance artist, and activist residing in Germantown, N.Y. Her most recent book is “American Phoenix” (Free Press, 2012), the biography of industrialist William Skinner. She is founder of the equal rights campaign Kiss for Equality, writes frequently about LGBT issues, is the lead singer in two bands, and has performed with a wide variety of people. “The Lavender Blues” is Kilborne’s first one-woman show.