PHOTO by JOHN MACLELLAN
by Charles G. McGuigan
On about midnight, a Friday, Ethel Barnett-Johnson, a.k.a. Lady E, is moving among a sea of fans, people who come back weekly to hear her perform at Emilio’s on West Broad Street. Some are dancing, others pulsing to a beat as Lady E serenades them with a voice so deep you can feel it resonate in your gut, sense percussion in your chest. It pounds you like a drum. As she makes her way across the floor, a cordless mic at her mouth, the people part for her and then come back together as if they’re water, surrounding her. She switches from blues to jazz and then belts out songs that are a hybrid of the two. It’s not the words that captivate; it’s the voice itself, coming from so deep inside this woman that you could never reach its source.
Lady E meets me in front of Lee’s Chicken, next to Pleasants Hardware, and we perch on a waist-high brick wall. She wears a denim jacket and jeans that are widely flared with these large godets of a filmy fabric the color of straw along the hemlines. Bracelets wrap her right arm, thirteen of them—brass, silver, ebony and ivory. Her left arm bears four other bracelets, and on every one of her fingers, except her thumbs, she wears a ring. Around her neck there’s a strand of pearls, white as her teeth. Almost every piece of jewelry that adorns her came from an admiring fan.
What propelled her into blues in the first place was an event so devastating she never thought she’d pull out of it.
Fifteen years ago, the Saturday before Mother’s Day, just shortly after the death of her father, Lady E’s son, Wallace, whom she affectionately called Bubbie, died. It was a freak sort of death. He was stationed up at A.P. Hill, regular Army, an E-4, about to attend Quarter Master’s School. He had just zipped himself into a sleeping bag and was nodding off. During the night, a tick attached itself to his neck right over the carotid artery and began sucking and regurgitating, pumping disease into his system. A few weeks later Bubbie was dead.
“It was a deadly tick,” Lady E tells me. “The kind with the little dot on the back, the diseased one.”
She remembers his death vividly in one of those moments of stilted, almost frozen, time. When she arrived home from work one Friday night her son, who was recuperating at home, had apparently had a seizure so Lady E called an ambulance. “The last thing he said to me was, ‘I love you,’” she remembers. “He was crazy about his mother and he didn’t want to leave me.”
On the way to the hospital the ambulance driver seemed to be taking his time, coming to complete stops at traffic lights and stop signs. But Lady E was fine with it. “I had no idea my child was dying,” she says.
In the hospital she made her way back to the nurses’ station. Her son had already been admitted to a private room. She approached him, rested her arms on the stainless steel railing on one side of the bed. She stared down at him, realizing for the first time how truly sick he was. “Bubbie come back this way,” she told him. “Don’t go toward the light.”
At the sound of her voice, Bubbie sat bolt upright in his bed, scattering the sheets, and then fell into a grand mal seizure. “That was it,” says Lady E. “They couldn’t bring him back. This happened. You hear me, Charles. This was not my imagination.”
Earlier that evening when she found him on the floor, she kneeled next to him and held his head in her arms and said: “Honey, what’s the matter, you got to get up from here.” He turned over and tried to get up but couldn’t muster the strength. She looked deep into his face and it seemed to her, at least for a split second, that he was a boy again, the same innocence, no lines or creases of care. “He looked like he did when he was six years old,” Lady E says. “This is a truth. This happened. It startled me. And I knew what it meant. Once an adult and twice a child.”
Grief tried to swallow her whole. But Lady E resisted. “I thought that would push me over the brink,” she says. “Nothing is like that. I tell people you can lose many things, but your child, I don’t know what it is, I can’t quite put my hand on it.”
My grandmother Cosgrove used to say that the worst thing that can happen to a mother is for a child to precede her to the grave. I know she felt relief that none of her children died before she did. “I don’t think you can feel worse,” says Lady E. “I think it’s something having to do with that umbilical cord attached to you that there’s a certain type of bond that you make right there.” The words “fruit of thy womb” from the prayer I learned as a child creeps into my mind.
“It’s not like any other bond,” Lady E tells me. “And I did not know what I was going to do.
One thing’s certain, she would not submit to grief, though it seemed to be banging at her door non-stop, wanting in. “I’ve had my share of woes,” she says. “But I’m also a woman to look into things and I try and make sure I get something positive out of any given situation. I’m going to come out of it with something positive. I do it because I don’t use can’t in my vocabulary. I don’t like that word and I do not use it. I may say it’s improbable, or it’s difficult, but you will not hear me use the word can’t because it’s such a crippler, it handicaps you.”
She recalls those first months after her son’s death—the disbelief, the anguish—and how she ultimately decided to rejoin the ranks of the living. “I had a choice,” she says. “I could have felt pity and went, ‘Oh, boy that’s it, I’m wiped out, there’s nothing I want to do now.’ But I want to live so I can help others. That was my baby’s timing. He lived a full life. He was a Mason, you name it. He did many things. But that was his timing. It was time for him to go. It wasn’t mine. I miss him, I love him, and I keep him dear to me, but I had to put it in a positive context in order to move forward, to move on.”
This was not the first time that immense tragedy struck Lady E. When her other son, Pierre, was just 18 years old, he was diagnosed with a fairly severe mental disorder brought on by an unfortunate experimentation with drugs that happened to have been tainted.
“He was given one draw off of reefer and it was laced with PCP and that brought it on,” she says. “He’s been on medication over 27 years because of that.” It bothers her that a lot of people have such a cavalier attitude toward drugs. “They take reefer and stuff like that lightly and try and say it doesn’t bother you. Yes it does. My son’s proof of that.”
At that time she was working at Tucker Mental Hospital then down on West Grace Street. Shortly before she left for her shift that afternoon, Pierre had just returned from school and went directly to his bedroom. Two hours later, at Tucker’s, she received a phone call from Richmond Memorial Hospital.
“So when I got to the hospital he was just pacing, just wild,” she says. “And I’m going, ‘What is the matter here?’ I had not left him that way. I had not seen him like that when he came in from school. I spoke with the doctor and he said, ‘Well, we think he got hold of some reefer. Take him home and let him sleep it off, and he’ll probably be okay tomorrow.’”
She did as the doctor recommended, but her son could not sit still, let alone lay down. He moved from his bedroom to the living room, and Lady E eventually made up a makeshift bed on the floor, and sat down right beside him. All night long he stared wide-eyed at his mother and the next morning she took him to Westbrook Hospital, which at that time was on the North Side.
Lady E returned to Westbrook every day after work, but her son no longer recognized her. Finally, on the seventh day, she received a phone call at work. It was her son. “Ma, when you coming to see me?” he asked. It was like Lazarus coming forth. Lady E stood at the nurses’ station and wept. “I had been there every day and he didn’t have a clue,” she remembers. “So when people think that stuff like reefer is so innocent they’re wrong. You have to be careful.”
By profession Lady E is a mental health technologist (she currently works at Richmond Community Hospital) and her understanding of mental disorders helped greatly in the gradual rehabilitation of her son, who now lives independently. Lady E suspects her career in psychiatrics may have been part of a plan for her that anticipated Pierre’s needs.
“You don’t always know the variables,” she says. “The universe does, but you don’t. Well I’m glad I chose that field because Pierre ended up with his diagnosis and I was already in place, already in the field.”
When he first returned home Pierre would hear voices and Lady E would sit with him for hours on end, talking to him, reassuring him. “If he could not say what I had said I knew he was thought-blocking and he was hearing voices so I would keep at it until he would tell me exactly what I said,” she tells me. “It was a way for him to develop an understanding of what was going on with him so he knew how to differentiate between hearing voices and reality. Like today, if he gets really stressed, if he starts hearing voices he’ll tell you, ‘I’m hearing voices’ and he’ll go off by himself to lie down and then boom, he’s okay.”
Pierre survived and Wallace did not. Dealing with that grief of final loss was almost unendurable. But Lady E dipped into an inner well and brought forth a healing water that would be her salvation.
As a girl, Lady E was immersed in music, a Baptist christening in the waters of Gospel music. Her Daddy sang with a quartet called the Flying Clouds of Pensacola. He played accordion, harmonica, piano and could sing like a bird. After he retired from factory work, Lady E’s father began promoting different Gospel singers as they worked their way along the circuit through Florida. More often than not, these musicians would drop by the family home.
Among those musicians was Sam Cooke when he sang with the Soul Stirrers. Lou Rawls when he was with the Pilgrim Travelers. There was Sister Roberta Thorpe and Clarence Carter, a pure Gospel singer who was converted to the blues.
As a girl, Lady E sang, too. She sang Gospel and did it from the time she was six until she became a teenager. And then one day she just stopped. No reason. Just didn’t want to do it any more.
But not long after her son died, Lady E’s desire to sing returned to her. And her voice was altogether different. It was the lowest kind of contralto, almost a basso, had dropped a full octave since her son’s death. Wallace (Bubbie) had had the deepest voice imaginable and it was as if this deepness entered his mother’s soul and filtered up into her vocal chords when he gave up the spirit.
“That all came about after my son died,” she says. “I found it to be therapeutic for me. It’s a way of releasing the grief I felt. I’ve gotten through my grief process through my singing. You know, the denial, the acceptance. The last phase is the acceptance. I’m still accepting it. The more I sing I feel that lightness coming in.”
The Blues were just a natural for her. “The blues are emotional,” Lady E says. “You’ve got to feel it. You can sing it, but to deliver it you’ve got to really connect and feel it and that is what put me in connection with the blues. His death. That has been the tool that has gotten me through my grief process. I think of my baby every day but I reflect back on the happy things we did together and I’m able to deal with that.”
She tells me that her grief, oddly, blossomed into a flower. “That flower opens and when it opens it opens into beauty,” she says. “I’ve never seen an ugly flower. Sadness turns to joy when I’m singing. And to begin singing after all those years is like being reborn and this is what I came out with. My own style, my own voice. I’m not trying to be like the next person. I’ve got my own thing going on and that’s what I’m very happy about. They can think that they know how I feel, but they don’t know how I feel. No one does. I’ll give you a secret. I never rehearse and my band doesn’t rehearse. I don’t care how big my show is and my band doesn’t rehearse. I have a twelve-piece band (Blues Synsations) and we just connect. I don’t just sing, I SING, SING.”
The very first time she performed almost sixteen years ago, at the age of 50, Lady E sang a song, the lyrics of which she didn’t really know. But she sang it anyway. And she sings it for me now, a cappella.
“Call it stormy Monday, Tuesday just as bad. Call it a stormy, stormy Monday, Tuesday’s just bad. Wednesday’s worst, Lord, Thursdays I’m so sad,” she sings and on the word “sad” her voice seems to drop another full octave scouring something so deep inside her it’s beyond reckoning, it doesn’t seem it can exist. “Eagle flies on Friday, Saturday I come out and play.”
Her eyes are blue, mirrors of the sky, and they are moist with tears. “You go all the way down in that basement,” she says, then sings again. “Sunday, I go to church, kneel down and pray.”
A couple years after her son died, Lady E had a strong desire one Sunday to go to church. She was tired, having sung the night before, but a voice kept telling her to go. She made her way out to St. Paul’s on Creighton Road and took a seat. She laid her fur coat, rolled up, on the floor and on top of that her purse and Bible. As she reached for her Bible, something descended over her, engulfing her. “It was like he had been waiting for me,” she remembers. “And it hugged me and I felt so much love. When I turned my head he kissed me on my cheek right here and I turned my head to kiss back and I kissed it real hard. I never felt love like that in my life.”
After this presence passed, she turned and saw a little boy sitting by himself. He was dressed in a green satin shirt with diamond patterns on it, green slack, a green sports coat and black patent leather shoes.
It wasn’t until later, after the service, that it dawned on her. “I said. ‘Oh, my God that was my baby.’ He had on all green, I buried him in his Class A uniform and black patent leather shoes. Oh, my God that was my baby.”
Lady E tells me that some nights when she’s finished singing and returns to her apartment and is having trouble with the zipper on her dress, just beyond the reach of her fingers, she’ll call out for Bubbie to give her a hand and the zipper will come down. “That’s the truth of my heart,” she says. “I believe you come back as a child. I believe that’s the mystery. Once an adult and twice a child. We all come back as children and I believe we gonna keep coming back until we get it right.”
And I believer her.