Written by James Killen
In 1966, my Methodist minister father was transferred to Caldwell, Texas to serve an old church there in town. Caldwell has a large Czech population that was referred to by the local WASP population as Bo hunks, generally a mildly derogatory term for Bohemian. The more aggressively derogatory names were saved for the population of black folk that lived across the tracks. 1966 was the first year of enforced school integration in Texas and my father found himself trying to be the voice of reason in a small maelstrom of racial and cultural clashes in this little East Texas town.
About 25 miles away, in Gause, Texas lived a two year old Ruthie Foster. By the time our family moved from Caldwell to Houston in 1969, Ruthie had developed a stutter. So, in a time of rampant prejudice and antagonism this five year old child found herself ridiculed further still. Her Big Mama (grandmother) spent extra time with her having her recite passages over and over again, with attention to pronunciation and diction, until she could overcome the stutter. Big Mama being a stalwart member of the church’s “Amen Corner”, brought Ruthie to church with her to recite these passages for the congregation. Her participation in church evolved into becoming a part of the gospel chorus and from there, she learned no limitations could hold her back from becoming a major vocal artist, recognized for talent and achievement by no less than poet laureate, Maya Angelou.
This was the Ruthie Foster that stepped up onto the stage Friday night in Tomball’s quaint venue and introduced her percussionist, Samantha Banks. The evening started out with some gospel blues as Ruthie kicked off “Up Above My Head (I Hear Music in the Air)”, warming up her vocal range. Then it was on to some mellow soul with “Another Rain Song”. That one was followed up with “Singing the Blues”.
Ms. Foster put on her finger picks for “Small Town Blues” which she proclaimed suitable for front porch singing as opposed to those more private songs relegated to the back porch in that same small town. She followed that up with a Mississippi John Hurt song from the upcoming release, “Joy Comes Back” called “Richland Woman Blues”. That song featured Samantha Banks playing the spoons like Bill Robinson tap dancing.
Ruthie moved from the blues (although she never gets too far from the blues) to the folk scene with a trio of songs by local lady songwriters. There was Patti Griffin’s, “When It Don’t Come Easy”, followed by Lucinda Williams’, “Fruits of my Labor” and Terri Hendrix’s “Hole in My Pocket”, which made a great sing-a-long.
From the world of Texas folk, the audience was transported to a small East Texas black church as Ruthie Foster described the congregation sitting in the pews, working the cardboard hand fans while a slight breeze would waft through the raised stained glass windows, all the while accompanied by Samantha on the tambourine. That set the stage for her to break into Son House’s traditional gospel, “People Grinning in Your Face”, performed a Capella.
The ladies brought us back to the present with a couple of numbers from the last album, “Promise of a Brand New Day”. First was Mavis Staples’ “The Ghetto” with Ruthie putting down some beautiful guitar work, followed by the title track, “Brand New Day.”
Ms. Foster introduced “Phenomenal Woman” as a composition that she had done based on a poem by Maya Angelou. She described finishing a show near Ms. Angelou’s home in North Carolina and returning to the dressing room to find a bouquet of flowers from Maya as a validation of her effort.
The main set ended with a sing-a-long version of Sam Cook’s “Darling You Send Me”. The audience could sense an encore coming as the house lights stayed down and they were not disappointed as Ruthie and Samantha returned to perform a rousing jump blues rendition of “Runaway Soul”.
Over the years, I have seen Ruthie Foster a number of times. Sometimes it was with simple accompaniment like this evening, others it was with a full band and still other times as a solo act. Every time that I have seen her, this time being no exception, I am amazed at the power and range of her voice. She takes hold of the audience and guides them spiritually into her life and always leaves them with a feeling of hope and love. She truly has been the victor in her journey from that little church in Gause.