Conjuring Consciousness, Conjuring Change: Cassandra Wilson, Blue Light ‘Til Dawn

By Daniel Garrett

Cassandra Wilson, Blue Light ‘Til Dawn
Produced by Craig Street
Blue Note/Capitol, 1993

Cassandra Wilson’s singing of the initial song on her album Blue Light ‘Til Dawn, Don Raye and Gene DePaul’s “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” is sensual and sleepy, sounding like the expression of wisdom found in a bad dream: “You don’t know what love is until you’ve learned the meaning of the blues, until you’ve loved a love you’ve had to lose.” With Wilson’s voice, Brandon Ross’s guitar, and Charlie Burnham’s violin giving the song more ache, the song is contemplative, slow, despairing, as Wilson sings of a “love that cannot live yet never dies.” It is a strangely, even dangerously, enchanting beginning.

On Blue Light ‘Til Dawn Cassandra Wilson’s voice is folksy and forceful in Robert Johnson’s “Come On In My Kitchen,” a song about hard times and solitude, carrying the implication of both personal generosity and witchery. Brandon Ross is on guitar, playing an irregular rhythm that reminds me of bluesman Robert Williams; and Tony Cedras is on accordion. In the song that follows, a declaration of commitment and a plea for patience, “Tell Me You’ll Wait for Me,” a composition by Charles Brown and Oscar Moore, Cassandra Wilson’s voice is first soft in its asking, then darkly probing; and the song features Kenny Davis on bass and Kevin Johnson on snare, manifesting a jazz ambiance (suggesting passing time, speculative thought—and the possibility of the creation of both beauty and love). There are fast, drumming beats in Thom Bell and Linda Creed’s “Children of the Night,” featuring Vinx on percussion, yielding an Afro-Latin sound. Wilson’s absolute mastery of tone is evident in Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on My Trail,” a song that declares “gotta keep moving, blues falling down like hail.” Wilson does not seem to be trying to charm or express emotion: she sounds so deep in the song “Hellhound on My Trail” that she is living its story. With her, Olu Dara is on cornet, and Brandon Ross on steel-string guitar; and it is admirable how just a few instruments, and a singer of intuition, can create such power. The perception of difficult and mysterious forces—things we do not entirely understand or control in ourselves or in the world; spiritual elements—creates an atmosphere in many of the songs on Blue Light ‘Til Dawn. The search for adventure and transformation is a theme of Joni Mitchell’s “Black Crow,” which includes the lyrics “my whole life has been illumination, corruption, and diving, diving,…diving down…,” a song in which Wilson is joined by clarinetist Don Byron. The song suggests that life’s searches can make us ugly as well as beautiful.

Cassandra Wilson adds her own song of memory and renewal in “Sankofa,” followed by the Brazilian composer Cyro Baptista’s “Estrellas.” For Wilson’s “Redbone,” Wilson creates a character, a lazy, sensual, man-cutting young woman with surprising religious faith and the song’s music moves beyond category. With Charlie Burnham on violin and Lonnie Plaxico on bass, Wilson’s interpretation of Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey” remains one of the loveliest songs I have heard: it is a reverie of appreciation, of sensuality.

In Wilson’s composition “Blue Light ‘Til Dawn” is a party scene, with infatuations and seductions, with the possibility of genuine contact and also cruel decadence, and Wilson’s voice is descriptive, interpretive, as she utilizes intelligence as an instrument in music. Cassandra Wilson uses the range of her voice in unexpected ways in that song, and in Ann Peebles’s “I Can’t Stand the Rain” in which Wilson is partnered by Chris Whitley’s guitar (I loved Chris Whitley’s album Living with the Law). Throughout her album Blue Light ‘Til Dawn, Cassandra Wilson reveals the individual psyche, and the human spirit: we hear tenderness, worry, and anger as part of a consciousness of turmoil and change.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist Changing Men, founded the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner, Edward Bannister, and Reginald Madison for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and American Book Review, and about international film for Offscreen and Cinetext, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. “The 1990s were a great time for music as there were so many different kinds of music being made, heard, and discussed. Cassandra Wilson’s albums Blue Light ‘Til Dawn and New Moon Daughter are exemplars of that time,” says Garrett. Daniel Garrett’s e-mail addresses are D.Garrett.Writer@gmail.com and dgarrett31@hotmail.com

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