Welcome to today’s stop on the Classics Circuit. During the month of February, the Circuit is celebrating the Harlem Renaissance. We are featuring books, authors and others associated with this time period – roughly around the 1920’s and 1930’s. The person I want to tell you about is Ethel Waters.
I chose to feature Ethel Waters because back in the late 1950’s I actually saw Ethel Waters perform – live – several times. Every Monday night in Pasadena, California, ‘Phil Kerr Presents’ featured some of the best performers in gospel music. Her signature song at those shows was His Eye Is On The Sparrow. There was never a dry eye in the place when she sang that song. The words to the chorus:
I sing because I’m happy
I sing because I’m free
His eye is on the sparrow
And I know He watches me
Although I’d seen her on television (as Beulah), I honestly thought she was best known as a gospel singer. I was unaware of her background or the rest of the story. So I picked up her autobiography, His Eye Is On The Sparrow (1951). It’s quite the story.
Ethel Waters’ childhood was defined by extreme poverty – both materially and emotionally. Here’s how she tells it in the opening lines of her autobiography:
I never was a child. I never was coddled, or liked, or understood by my family. I never felt I belonged. I was always an outsider. I was born out of wedlock, but that had nothing to do with all this. To people like mine a thing like that just didn’t mean much. Nobody brought me up.
Ethel’s mother was raped when she was 12. After Ethel was born she wanted no reminder of that painful event. Ethel’s grandmother took responsibility for Ethel but her job kept her absent all but one day a week. Ethel was left with whomever among the aunts and other relatives were home. As she grew, she took care of herself. Because she was always hungry, she learned to be one of the best thieves in the neighborhood. She grew up to be strong and tough.
There was only one constant in young Ethel’s life which brought her both joy and her future livelihood – singing. Singing the blues was “one emotional outlet [her] people always had when they had the blues.” Everyone sang. Instead of telling Ethel stories, they sang.
Ethel never thought about earning a living as a singer but one night, on a dare, she sang at a club. In the audience were two professionals who had a small vaudeville unit. They liked her and hired her to travel with them and play in theaters all around the east coast and the south. Ethel’s specialty was singing the blues, but she could sing popular ballads as well as jazz..
When Ethel went to Harlem she thought it would be just for a few weeks. Although it was only a short distance from her home in the Philadelphia area, New York –
“was the Big Time as no other American city has ever been. The greatest act in colored show business had long made Harlem their home and favorite stamping ground. When other performers had spoken to me about Harlem their eyes had filled with excitement and a dreamy wonder. I didn’t know whether I could make good in such a place.”
But Ethel did make good. She went on to make records, act and sing on Broadway, make movies and TV shows. She had some dry spells especially when she hit her forties. Many thought she was a has-been. But Ethel Waters had resilience and an extremely strong inner faith. Whether she was up or down, she always read her scriptures and kept on praying. The words to the song, His Eye Is On The Sparrow, was the theme song of her life.
The book was excellent (an A). I borrowed it from the library and I could tell it has been well loved by thousands of readers. Each page lays flat as if it’s a spiral bound book. It’s been read that much. Check your library for it or buy the paperback at Amazon. [The hardcover is now $81.95]
There is an old video clip on You-Tube of Ethel Waters singing His Eye Is On The Sparrow. She was at a Billy Graham crusade in 1975, just two years before her death. Her voice was still strong and there was such a warm glow on her face. If you’d like to see that video, click here.