Born: 1902 | Died: January 29, 1964
Vera Hall - Blues and Spirtuals Singer (1902 - 1964)
Born in 1902 in Payneville, Alabama, just outside of Livingston in Sumter County, Vera Hall grew up to establish one of the most stunning bodies of American folk music on record. Hall married Nash Riddle, a coal miner, in 1917 and gave birth to their daughter, Minnie Ada. Riddle was killed in 1920. Though Hall sang her entire life, learning spirituals such as “I Got the Home in the Rock” and “When I’m Standing Wondering, Lord, Show Me the Way” from her mother, Agnes, and her father, Efron “Zully” Hall, it was not until the late 1930s that Hall’s singing gained national exposure.
John Avery Lomax, ethnomusicologist, met Hall in the 1930s and recorded her for the Library of Congress. Lomax wrote that she “had the loveliest voice [he] had ever recorded.” The British Broadcasting System played Hall’s recording of “Another Man Done Gone” in 1943 as a sampling of American folk music. The Library of Congress played the song the same year in commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. In 1945, Hall recorded with Byron Arnold. In 1984, the recordings were released as a Collection of Folksongs entitled “Cornbread Crumbled in Gravy.”
In 1948, with the help of Alan Lomax, Hall traveled to New York and performed on May 15 at the American Music Festival at Columbia University. During the course of this trip, Lomax interviewed Hall on several occasions. In 1959, these interviews would be transformed into Rainbow Sign, a thinly- guised biography of Hall. In this book, Lomax stated, “her singing is like a deep-voiced shepherd’s flute, mellow and pure in tone, yet always with hints of the lips and the pleasure-loving flesh... The sound comes from deep within her when she sings, from a source of gold and light, otherwise hidden, and falls directly upon your ear like sunlight. It is a liquid, full contralto, rich in low overtones; but it can leap directly into falsetto and play there as effortlessly as a bird in the wind.”
Today, her work still garners attention. In 1999, techno-artist, Moby (Richard Melville Hall), included her voice and song “Troubled So Hard” in his multi-platinum album Play, thus introducing Hall’s voice to a whole new generation of listeners. Prized by scholars and folksong enthusiasts, Hall’s recordings include examples of early blues and folk songs that are found nowhere else. Her masterful renditions of traditional songs and stories are a defining part of Southern Black culture and the Black Belt region.
She was inducted into the Alabama Women's Hall of Fame in March 2005.
The Alabama Blues Project has established a fund to honor the life and music of Vera Hall. Proceeds from this fund will be used to purchase a historical marker to be placed in Livingston near the cemetery where Vera Hall lies buried in an unmarked grave. The Vera Hall Memorial Project is in collaboration with the Sumter County Historical Society in Livingston, Alabama, who will help with the design, placement and funding of this important project. The goal of this endeavor is to help bring attention to the life and artistry of Vera Hall and the rich music culture of the Alabama Black Belt Region.
The following is from a speech by Gabriel Greenburg, Vera Hall advocate.
Vera Hall ranks with ease among the better known folk and country-blues singers of the previous century. Leadbelly, Jelly Roll Morton, Mississippi John Hurt, or Robert Johnson are all comparable talents. Though Hall is dramatically obscure compared to these figures, her artistry is just as great. Her music is unique in the cannon of folk song for its delivery and content. And her songs remain unmatched in their craftsmanship, grace, and emotional power. A careful examination of her songs and her sources reveals a compositional hand at work that goes well beyond the notion of the folk singer merely rehearsing tradition: Vera Hall was in no uncertain terms an artist.
Bringing Vera Hall into the public eye is not just a service to music listeners; it is a service to society. By giving prominence to the likes of Hall, we may change the terrain of American history, and with it our sense of cultural identity, our imagination and ambitions. If we are lucky, we might inspire Vera Halls of the future to reach out across whatever boundary separates currently separate them from us.