CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Lea Gilmore describes herself as just a little black girl from Baltimore, but on stage she has a big voice.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOBODY'S FAULT BUT MINE")
LEA GILMORE: (Singing) I knew a preacher. He could preach. I knew a preacher. He could sure enough preach, but if I die and my soul get lost, it's nobody's fault but mine. Hey, nobody's fault but mine. Nobody's fault but mine. If I die and my soul get lost, it's nobody's fault but mine. Oh, yeah.
HEADLEE: And she doesn't just use her voice to sing. She's also a strong advocate for civil rights, both at home and abroad. Classically trained, Gilmore now travels the world singing the blues, gospel and jazz music. She recently completed a tour of Siberia. Yes, the one with all the snow. And she says she was pretty much the only black person there, so we wanted to learn more about her life as a singing activist.
Lea Gilmore, welcome to the program and Happy Holidays to you.
GILMORE: Thank you so much. I'm thrilled to be here and Happy Holidays to you. I just wish the universe could see your outfit. That's what I'm wishing right now.
HEADLEE: Oh, really?
HEADLEE: Well, maybe I should take a picture and just post it out there to the universe.
GILMORE: There you go. Or the podcast. Your face, that outfit.
HEADLEE: But since you're speaking of clothing, you wear many different uniforms.
HEADLEE: You have a lot of different jobs in your life. I mean...
GILMORE: That's the intriguing thing. I think I'm really, like, 95, you know?
HEADLEE: Maybe if you count up all the things that you do on a particular day.
GILMORE: Right, right.
HEADLEE: Which of these jobs is most important to you?
GILMORE: Well, I think my most important job is a mother. I mean there's nothing that comes close to being a wife and mother. You know, it kind of informs everything, but I don't really think of them as jobs because, you know, being able to have the gift of music and having the drive for social justice and advocacy and being able to merge the two, I think I'm one of the luckiest women in the world.
HEADLEE: As I mentioned, you are classically trained. How did you end up in gospel and jazz and blues?
GILMORE: Oh, girl (unintelligible) listen. Most of us come from the church and I am no different. I started out as, you know, a little girl in the church and we take our music for granted. You know, the music is loved all over the world, but African-American traditional music, as I grew up in the church, was just something I heard and experienced and heard my aunts and uncles sing.
But then I was in middle school. I had a pretty good ear and my music teacher heard me just tinkling on the piano and he said, you need to do something with that. I auditioned for a conservatory and I got a full scholarship as a piano - classical pianist. And then...
HEADLEE: But that's a great way to train a singer.
GILMORE: It's a great - all singers should definitely have an instrument, and piano being the one. And a few years later, though, it wasn't classical. It was Donna Summer. I heard Donna Summer...
HEADLEE: You were singing disco?
GILMORE: ...sing - Donna Summer sing - and I thought, my God, I'm going to make myself sing. So here I am, this little girl with a hairbrush and a blanket over my hair for hair - for Donna Summer hair.
HEADLEE: Yeah. Because she had long hair.
GILMORE: And I'm just...
(Singing) Last dance, the last dance....
(Speaking) But finally, you know, I started taking vocal lessons and I became quite the mezzo, and I still enjoy it. I still...
HEADLEE: And that's - so most people know, that's an alto if they sung in choirs.
GILMORE: Yeah. It's a little higher than an alto.
GILMORE: I mean, a mezzo soprano is literally a medium soprano.
GILMORE: It means you sing the high notes, but you still have the low notes, so you can, you can - if they tell you to sing alto. You can do it.
HEADLEE: Well, let's hear a little bit more of your singing. This is a gospel song, "Precious Lord," and it's you performing live in Belgium. Let's take a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRECIOUS LORD")
GILMORE: (Singing) Hold my hand. Don't let me, don't let me fall. Take my hand, precious, precious Lord, and lead me home. Take - take my hand, precious, precious Lord, and lead me home...
HEADLEE: This is absolutely gorgeous singing.
GILMORE: Oh, thank you so much.
HEADLEE: And with the crack in your voice, it's...
GILMORE: It's me trying. Yeah. Yeah.
HEADLEE: Yeah. Is so emotional and yet, with your classical training, that's something they're trying to train you to never do.
GILMORE: That's right. And that's why I moved back to the more traditional genres of music that I grew up with because I'm such an emotional person. It's not that the - classical training is quite emotional.
HEADLEE: Absolutely. Yeah.
GILMORE: You know, but our traditional music is so at the moment. You know, when you sing an aria you're singing it with the orchestra as it is written there and now and you're emoting, you know. But, when you have the freedom, our music is, Gospel good news. It means good news and so we have the freedom to tell the story the way that we want to tell the story. And you never, often, never hear the same songs sung the same way the same time because we are singing it as we're feeling it at that moment. And I was thinking about my mom at that point, that was one of her favorite songs, and she had recently passed away and it just filled me with so much emotion. But that means the audience also can feel that same thing, because it goes beyond race, ethnicity, where we're from. We're really - the music is soul to soul speaking. There's so much we can say to each other through music, and that's why I really went back to the traditions.
HEADLEE: Well, that leads us directly into your work as an activist, because that song we just listened to was performed for the Damien Foundation in Belgium.
HEADLEE: You've been singing to raise money for them for 13 years, I understand?
GILMORE: Yeah. I was like 10. No, I'm just kidding.
GILMORE: Not hardly, sweetheart.
HEADLEE: But, so tell me a little bit about the Damien Foundation and why this is one of your charities of choice.
GILMORE: Well, it was, for me, it was something that I had to do. I was in Belgium and I was asked by a friend of mine who we had a little Internet group of people who were really into the blues, scholarly and wrote on Women and the Blues. And he invited me over to sing at his church when I went to Belgium. And I said sure, and I thought he wanted me to sing "Ave Maria" or something, you know. But he said no, we want to hear Mahalia Jackson. So someone from the Damien...
HEADLEE: In Belgium?
GILMORE: In Belgium. In Belgium. So someone from the Damien Foundation was there and they were telling me what they did, and was telling me how much they enjoyed this music and how we should merge the two, and I thought that was very creative.
HEADLEE: And what does the Damien Foundation do?
GILMORE: The Damien Foundation supports victims of tuberculosis and leprosy in Africa, South America and Asia. And at one time we had a choir of 2,000 people - 2,000 Belgians - singing African-American Gospel music, me, and an audience of 5,000 people. We sold it out every night. And you haven't lived until you've heard 2,000 Belgians singing "Oh Happy Day." OK?
HEADLEE: (Singing) Oh, happy day. But...
GILMORE: Sing, girl.
HEADLEE: But let me tell you something, that is more believable to me than you getting hundreds of Russians, say. I mean 'cause you were just in Siberia.
GILMORE: It was amazing.
HEADLEE: Tell me about what that was like.
GILMORE: Going to Siberia twice, and this will be my third time, getting the Russians who were so curious, first about me. Literally people were stopping on the street. I would go to; I went to the Russian Ballet. You have to go to Russia...
HEADLEE: Wait, they're stopping you on the street because you're black?
GILMORE: Because I'm black. Because I - they hadn't seen someone in person like that. My hair, you know, is braided. And they were just like; can we take photo, photo, photo? I went to the ballet and it was literally all these amazing, beautifully women coming and rushing to me. And I'm thinking boy, I must be so super famous. No, they just wanted to take pictures of me because I was there. But for the music, the Russian audience was astoundingly appreciative. And you know there is a serious language barrier.
GILMORE: I had a translator who was very good. But the thing about it is, you know, we don't laugh in black, we don't cry in white. These emotions are human emotions. And the thing about music is that it brings out the motions that all of us feels. You know, if I sing, you know, a Ray Charles song, you know, Hallelujah, I just love him so - people are up and dancing. Or if I sing something like, you know, sometimes I feel like a motherless child, you can feel the angst, you know, and the pain that the song emotes and you can see it on their faces. And it's like me, when I listen to French chanson, like Jacques Brel singing "Ne me quitte pas," "Don't Leave Me," you know, I may not understand every word but I know what he's saying, please don't leave me, you know.
If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with civil rights advocate and singer, Lea Gilmore. Now you're not just taking African-American music to Europe, you've been inspired by some of the music there.
HEADLEE: Scotland, for example.
HEADLEE: Well, tell me a little bit more about your Umoja Gaelica.
GILMORE: Well, that's an amazing thing. Umoja means unity in Swahili, key Swahili. And Gaelica represents the Gaelic tradition, so we put it together. And once I was just listening to be Irish drum play. I said god, this sounds like West Africa, you know?
HEADLEE: Mm-hmm. That's interesting
GILMORE: I got together with the Scottish musicians thinking they'd think I was nuts, saying why don't we do this, guys, take African-American traditional music, mix it with Scottish and Irish and English traditional music and use it as a way to talk about peace and justice and equality? And I'll be darned if it didn't work. I mean it was, all of our concerts were sold out. I mean people were just amazed by, you know, the mixtures of the music. We're doing an Umoja Icelandia in Iceland next year.
HEADLEE: Yeah, well let's take a listen to give our listeners kind of a taste of what you're talking about. This is "Wade in the Water", as performed by that group, Umoja Gaelica.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WADE IN THE WATER")
GILMORE: (Singing) Wade in the water. Wade in the water, children. Wade in the water. God's gonna trouble the water.
So, you know, it's so interesting, a lot of times in Europe, in northern Europe - you know, and even in Russia, there is an inside, inside feelings, you know, we don't want express ourselves we don't - when we expressed joy. From the traditional African-American church experience we are...
HEADLEE: It's all out there.
GILMORE: It's all out there. You know. You've seen "Sister Act," you know...
GILMORE: ...whatever. It's all out there. You know, we say hallelujah, everybody say hallelujah. And it's so great now. I've been going to Belgium so much. They're already ready, you know, they're already, you know...
GILMORE: Let the Church say amen. And they are saying amen. It's so wonderful.
HEADLEE: So I want to move on to a different subject...
HEADLEE: Because when you were chatting with one of our producers, you said you're a statistic. That's the phrase that you used.
GILMORE: Yeah. Mm-hmm.
HEADLEE: And you're talking about the fact that you married very young. You were 18?
GILMORE: I was 18.
HEADLEE: You had a son at the age of 19, so young.
GILMORE: No, I was 18.
HEADLEE: You were 18 when you had a son?
GILMORE: I was married with my son there. OK.
GILMORE: We always tell him he was at the wedding, you know.
HEADLEE: But you could have been a statistic in the negative sense...
HEADLEE: ...of that term.
HEADLEE: What changed for you so that you did not become just a statistic?
GILMORE: I think - and I thank you so much for asking me that because it is so important to me. I came from a group of very strong, very strong Southern women. My mom was the oldest of 10. They went to college, you know, my mom became a bacteriologist, but she came from the farm. My dad was a sharecropper. You know, not until he got into his 30s did he become literate and become a professional. And these folks imparted in me so much. You know, they imparted in me that whatever happens to you in life doesn't dictate your circumstances for the rest of your life. And I will never forget that. My mom said life isn't either or, it's and. And I think that's why I do so much - maybe too much - but I really come from a people, a great group of folks. I don't like to call them survivors. I like to call them livers because they like to live and they helped me, and I'm actually still married to that same man.
HEADLEE: The same guy. How many years now?
GILMORE: I've been married 29 years, which is pretty amazing.
HEADLEE: It is.
GILMORE: Isn't it? It is. And our anniversary was this past Christmas Eve.
HEADLEE: That is an achievement.
GILMORE: It is. Girl, what you talking about?
GILMORE: So now I have these wonderful 28 and 22-year-old sons. And, you know, a lot of women my age, I'm 47 and very proud of it, have little ones...
GILMORE: ...you know, and I'm on the other side - other side of that.
HEADLEE: See, that's one way in which you're ahead of everybody else.
GILMORE: Well, honey, something had to happen, you know.
HEADLEE: Well, you've also spent a lot of time teaching about women in the blues...
GILMORE: I do.
HEADLEE: ...and African-American music just itself. For more than a decade you've been doing that. I don't know, I would hate to see your schedule, honestly.
HEADLEE: So educate us here, real quickly. What's maybe one thing we should know about women in the blues or African-American music?
GILMORE: Well, let me tell you what you should know about women in the blues, that women were the first blues stars. During the classic blues period of the 1920s, women really ushered in the pop aspect of the blues. And at one time Bessie Smith, who is known by a lot of people, was the wealthiest singer around - white or black. She was wealthy enough to buy a train car because she didn't want to sit in the back of the train car because of segregation. She was wealthy enough to buy herself a train car.
HEADLEE: Well, that's one way to solve that problem.
GILMORE: Yeah. There you go.
HEADLEE: Lea Gilmore, blues, gospel and jazz civic activist from Baltimore, Maryland. She joined us from our studios here in Washington, D.C.
It has been a pleasure, Lea. Thank you so much.
GILMORE: Oh, thank you. Thank you so much. I've had a wonderful time.
HEADLEE: And she does write her own music as well. Let's leave you with this one. It's called "I'd Like to Say Hello."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'D LIKE TO SAY HELLO")
GILMORE: (Singing) I'd like to say hello but my man is here tonight. I'd like to come on over but I'm not looking for a fight. I'd like to come on over and have a little drink but my man don't let me breathe, he don't even let me think. I'd like to come on over but my man is here tonight.
HEADLEE: And that's our program for today. I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Tune in for more talk tomorrow.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'D LIKE TO SAY HELLO")
GILMORE: (Singing) ...here tonight. I'd like to hold you close, even though I know it ain't right... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Blues, gospel and jazz singer Lea Gilmore describes herself as "just a little black girl from Baltimore." But she has a big voice that has touched audiences across the world. She speaks with guest host Celeste Headlee about her life, her music and being the only black person in Siberia.
Baltimore Singer's Big Voice Touches Siberia
MJ Smuts / Lea Gilmore
"My Mom said, 'life isn't either, or, it's and.' And I think that's why I do so much, maybe too much."
Lea Gilmore was pregnant and married at 18. She describes herself as a "statistic." But, she tells NPR's Celeste Headlee, lessons learned from a family of "very strong Southern women" meant that she did not allow that to dictate her circumstances.
Trained as a classical pianist, she has developed an international career as a gospel, blues and jazz singer. She returned to the more traditional genres of music that she grew up with in church and at home because she is "such an emotional person" and loves the freedom that they give. "Gospel means 'good news' and so we have the freedom to tell the story the way that we want to tell the story. And you'll never hear the same songs sung the same way the same time because we are singing it as we're feeling it at that moment," she explains.
Gilmore has played to packed audiences as far away as Siberia, but she says that they all respond to this emotion in her music. "It goes beyond race, ethnicity, where we're from. The music is soul-to-soul speaking. There is so much we can say to each other through music."
A devoted civil-rights activist, Gilmore realizes that she can use her voice to highlight issues that are important to her. For 13 years, she has performed concerts in Belgium to raise money for the Damien Foundation - a nongovernmental organization that specializes in leprosy and tuberculosis control in Africa, Asia and South America. "At one time, we had a choir of 2,000 Belgians singing African-American gospel music, me, and an audience of 5,000 people. We sold it out every night, and you haven't lived until you've heard 2,000 Belgians singing 'Oh Happy Day,' she laughs.
Gilmore has also toured Siberia three times, and says that she is overwhelmed by the way they respond to her. "Literally people were stopping on the street....because I'm black. Because they hadn't seen someone in person like that," she remembers. "But for the music, the Russian audience was astoundingly appreciative." This did not come as a surprise though, "we don't laugh in black, we don't cry in white. These emotions are human emotions. And the thing about music is that it brings out the emotions that all of us [feel]," she adds.
Gilmore laughs when asked what her calendar looks like, and says that "being able to have the gift of music, and having the drive for social justice and advocacy, and being able to merge the two, I think I'm one of the luckiest women in the world."
That said, her family comes above everything else. Twenty-nine years later, she can happily say she is still married to the same man, and her "most important job is a mother. There's nothing that comes close to being a wife and mother. It kind of informs everything," she declares.