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Rosetta Tracks The Women Of The Blues

July 20, 1986|DON SNOWDEN

NEW YORK — Female artists have become increasingly prominent in pop, but for Rosetta Reitz there's one group of women musicians who still haven't received the recognition they deserve: the black jazz and blues performers who recorded mainly for the "race record" market from the 1920s through the late '40s.

"When the women's movement began, I started to think about questions like why is jazz considered a male domain?" said Reitz, 61, in her Chelsea district apartment here. "Where were the women, and why don't we know about the women? I was interested in why they had not been written into the history significantly enough."

Reitz's response was to establish Rosetta Records, which in six years has released 15 albums. Song titles like Blue Lou Barker's "I Don't Dig You, Jack," Bertha Idaho's "You've Got the Right Eye but You're Peeping at the Wrong Keyhole" and Bessie Brown's "Ain't Much Good in the Best of Men Nowadays" epitomize the independent spirit and bawdy humor of the material Reitz selects.

The Rosetta releases include albums or individual tracks from such famous performers as Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith, but the real heart of Reitz's effort is exposing more obscure artists. One is Valaida Snow, an accomplished trumpeter and singer who became an international star in the '30s and resumed her career after surviving 18 months in a Nazi concentration camp.

Another record features Lil Green, who had hits that crossed over to the pop mainstream during the '40s and whom Reitz cites as a bridge to the R&B style that inspired rock 'n' roll. The album closest to Reitz's heart is by the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an integrated big band popular through the '40s.

"I fall in love with them all, but the Sweethearts have so many more dimensions going for them," Reitz said. "I'm around their age so I identify with them, and I would love to have had that experience myself. This was a big deal, to join a band and go traveling the world.

"It was just as much of an adventure for these women as it was for any man, and harder to do because families aren't used to letting young girls go out in the world like that. It's as heroic as anybody searching for the Golden Fleece."

Reitz, who grew up in Upstate New York, quit the University of Wisconsin just short of graduation and moved to New York City after World War II. She raised three daughters and worked a variety of jobs (including stockbroker), but her chief occupation was writing. She says that writing the book "Menopause: A Positive Approach" in 1977 gave her the confidence and financing to pursue the Rosetta project.

Her literary skills are still being put to good use. Each Rosetta album is beautifully packaged with period photographs and extensive liner notes drawn from the book that Reitz has nearly completed on these artists.

Half the releases are compilation albums of material selected to illustrate a central theme. "Sorry, but I Can't Take You," for instance, is a collection of railroad blues that throws a different light on the traditional notion of the train as the vehicle to freedom and economic opportunity for Southern blacks.

"That opportunity didn't exist for women because they couldn't work for Ford in Detroit or the meat-packing plants in Chicago," Reitz explained. "I discovered this whole literature of songs about how the women hated the train because it took their men away. The train wasn't taking them to freedom. When the family saved money for a train ticket, it was for a man to go north for a job.

"All that material has been totally ignored, and yet it's documented. I call that really revising history, and I really like doing that."

Finding the original records to accomplish that revision is often a long process. Half the material on the Sweethearts of Rhythm album was culled from the tape of a 1945 concert broadcast through the Armed Forces Radio Service. Reitz acquires most of her material through record collectors, but the technical difficulties of dealing with old 78s can be frustrating.

"I'll get an idea, and it might take me two to four years to assemble the number of 78s I need that are clear enough to use. Sometimes, I'll finally track something down and there's not enough music left on the record. Because of some very advanced technology, sometimes I can use two styli to go on the side of the groove instead of taking the music off of the middle."

Rosetta isn't a big money maker, but Reitz's lectures at colleges and museums provide enough extra income to continue putting out albums. She also produced two shows for New York's Kool Jazz Festival and has initiated a campaign for a Bessie Smith postage stamp. Reitz is also seeking funding for a documentary film on the International Sweethearts of Rhythm and is getting ready for Rosetta's next release--Ethel Waters at the height of her singing career in 1938-39.

All of which keeps Reitz busy. But, she said, "it uses so many different parts of me."

"I take a big interest in the graphic images, doing the research and writing the liner notes, putting the material into production and being involved with the pressing and printing plant. It's very fulfilling."

For information: Rosetta Records, 115 West 16th St., New York 10011.

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