The blues call us to face the reality of mistreatment. Blues songs are full of people doing one another wrong—mistreatment from lovers, strangers, systemic structures, and, of course, from oneself. But by calling it out and making it plain—we humans don’t treat one another right—the blues exert an opposing force. They help us glimpse the world that we’d like to live in, one where people do right by themselves and their sisters and brothers.
At least that’s how I feel when I listen to Pat “Mother Blues” Cohen. Certainly, Cohen has seen her share of mistreatment. She’s completely open about what she’s been through—sexual assault as a young woman, being fired under false pretenses, being displaced by Katrina, losing her house to fire. “It’s just life,” she says. “And if you can’t keep it real, if you can’t tell the truth about yourself, what can you tell the truth about?” She tells the truth when she sings, too. There’s nothing sad about her blues, nothing weepy or self-pitying. With the confidence and regality of blues pioneers like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, Cohen’s voice conveys the message, “yeah, the mistreatment is real, but it’s never going to stop me.”
Cohen’s blues, full of power and resilience, are the kind that fill you up and make you feel good. She loves to make her audience happy. “It makes me happy to make other people happy,” she says, “It’s like the gift that keeps on giving. I give it. It comes back. I give it. It comes back.” This kind of reciprocity is something Cohen talks about a lot. She calls it “planting seeds,” and she sees everything she does as an opportunity to plant seeds. She sings regularly at nursing homes in her area, for example. “I do all songs that they know, or things that I’ve handpicked just for them,” she explains,
And the people really appreciate it, because folks in these nursing homes, they don’t get the opportunity to hear really good music that often. And someone asked me, ‘Why are you doing that if they’re not paying you?’ And I said they are paying me. Maybe not with money, but they’re paying me. Because I leave out of there some days so filled up; so full, you understand? I’ll come out of there so full that the tears are just coming out of my eyes.
Before Hurricane Katrina, she would draw huge crowds in New Orleans clubs and was often called “The Queen of Bourbon Street.” She lived in the Ninth Ward, though, and lost everything in the 2005 storm. She was displaced to North Carolina where she had two brothers. “A lot of people don’t really understand what the word displaced is all about,” she says,
It’s being somewhere where you are totally out of sorts. Like they dropped you off in outer space. You don’t know anything. You don’t know where the stores are. You don’t know where you’re going to live. You don’t anybody in your town. You don’t know musicians, or where you’re going to play. You don’t know anything.
Eventually, she hooked up with Big Ron Hunter at a club in Winston Salem and he introduced her to Tim Duffy. Music Maker has been able to help her find gigs and even sent her to Europe and Australia with the Music Maker Revue. Still, she’s remained intimately acquainted with the struggles that so many musicians face. “This has not been the easiest life,” she muses, “It’s almost like when you devote yourself to being an artist, you take a vow of poverty. Like a monk.” The Music Maker Sustenance Program has pitched in to help Cohen with things like getting heat in her home and a vehicle to make it to gigs. Music Maker also helped offset the costs when she recently lost her house to fire. “Most of my life,” Cohen says, “I never had to ask anybody for anything, I’ve always made it myself. But sometimes, things happen where you could use a helping hand. And it is nice to know that there is somebody out there looking out for you.”
Cohen keeps a quote on her mirror that reads, in part, “Life is 10% of what happens to us and 90% of how we respond to it. The single most significant decision I can make on a day-to-day basis is my choice of attitude.” She reads it every morning and sets out to live by it. And I hear it when she sings the blues. She’s responding to a harsh world by exerting an opposing force. This is how the best blues work, I’ve always thought. By telling the truth about how people treat each other, they make us want to do better.
Music Maker nurtures of a community—Pat Cohen calls it a “family”—of great artists who tell these truths. And in the same way that the blues exert a counterforce to mistreatment, every contribution to Music Maker exerts a counterforce to the struggle that so many artists have endured for so long. “I really and truly, truly appreciate Music Maker,” Pat Cohen says, “To me, they’re like family. And the artists in Music Maker, we’re like a family. It’s a community and it’s a family, and I’m proud to be a part of it.” She goes on, “and for those that contribute to Music Maker, I want them to know, they’re not just contributing to a foundation, they’re contributing to people’s lives.” To return to Cohen’s favorite metaphor, every contribution is a seed. Together these seeds grow into a bountiful harvest that we all reap.
— Will Boone