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Scott, Esther Mae (1893–1979)

Scott, Esther Mae (1893–1979)

African-American blues singer and musician. Name variations: Mother Scott. Born on March 25, 1893, in Bovina, Mississippi; died of a stroke in Washington, D.C., on October 16, 1979; daughter of Henry S. Erves and Mary Liza Erves (both sharecroppers); had occasional schooling at Clover Valley Baptist School.

Esther Mae Scott was the seventh child born to Mississippi sharecroppers Henry and Mary Erves , on March 25, 1893. She and her 13 siblings lived with their parents on a plantation as sharecroppers, and Scott became part of the family farming workforce at age five. She was not paid for her labor until she was nine, when she received 25 cents a day. Schooling was limited to a few weeks in the winter when crops were not being harvested. Life's basic needs—food, clothing and shelter—were scarce, and the family searched the woods for berries and any other fruits or vegetables.

Music was an integral part of Scott's work day. She later told Ward Silver of Great Speckled Bird magazine:

The average Negro from Mississippi and other slave counties knew how to sing because singing is something to raise your ego up enough to help you solve the task you got to do. And singing looked like it'd make the day shorter for you.

She learned how to play the guitar at age eight, and picked up the mandolin, banjo and piano from friends and family.

Scott used these skills when she left home at 14 to join a vaudeville group, W.S. Wolcott's Rabbit Foot Minstrels. She toured the South for a dollar a day to sing, dance, play guitar, and promote a hair product, Jack Rabbit and Bentone Liniment. The liniment, a hoax, was bought primarily by other blacks, but Scott felt the paycheck was vital for her family and took the money home to them. She also created her own songs, added blues to her repertoire, and learned how to perform before an audience.

After two years, Scott left the show to become a maid and nurse for a wealthy family in Vicksburg, Mississippi. She stayed with them for 27 years before being let go in 1938 when the family moved into a hotel during the Depression. Through these years, she had followed the music scene and had met several blues artists, including Leadbelly and Bessie Smith . For the next 20 years, Scott was the maid and nurse for Merty Landau Shoemaker, who lived in Baltimore, Maryland, and was the cousin of her former employer.

In 1958, Scott moved to Washington, D.C., where she revived her performing career. Joining St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, she became an integral part of its singing programs. She soon expanded her performances to nightclubs, as blues and folk music made a comeback in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as well as festivals and civil-rights demonstrations. Scott joined the musicians' union and was paid union wages for other work on radio and television, but usually performed church-related work for free.

Scott's reputation grew with her nightclub performances, and soon she was appearing before audiences of a much larger size. She appeared at bicentennial celebrations in Baltimore and Westminster, Maryland, and at the Smithsonian Folk Festival in Washington, D.C. (all 1976). She performed on the Mall at the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife (1978), at Washington's National Cathedral, at Rutgers University, and to an audience of 72,000 in the Pocono Mountains. In 1971, she recorded her only album, Moma Ain't Nobody's Fool, the title of which reflected her nickname in the blues world: "Mother Scott."

Failing health limited Scott's performing in her later years, as she suffered from glaucoma, diabetes, and high blood pressure, and had difficulty walking. Despite having never learned to read music, she wrote verses to new songs up until shortly before her death of a stroke in Washington, D.C., on October 16, 1979. She was 86.

sources:

Bailey, Brooke. The Remarkable Lives of 100 Women Artists. Holbrook, MA: Bob Adams, 1994.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

Sally Cole-Misch , freelance writer, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan

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