FAITH PILLOW / “Natural Woman”
They have always been among us, embracing our wholeness, completing us, helping, healing and heart-holding us together. Always. These women. Short-haired women. Never quite the fashion but never out of style.
Some slender, some hefty. Silently celebrated in the eyes of the true believers—those of us who intimately know our people's goodness, savor our greatness, are unimpressed by might or wealth, instead are the wise of us, i.e. those desirous of living as lovers live. Open, vulnerable. Good for and to each other. To the all of us.
These women dance or sing. Cook or perhaps draw & paint, or sculpt. Quite a few of them have been elementary school teachers, a double handful of them physicians (more often non-professional wellness practitioners outfitted with herbs, potions, salves and soft words that smooth out the creases and crevices rutted by hurt, hardship and betrayal).
When we return from visiting these women we are reconstructed, rehabilitated, rejuvenated and ready for 12 more rounds of daily battle.
And yet, and yet… the official record books do not record their achievements, not like talking about it, not like so as everybody knows. But those of us who are conscious attest there is no wholeness without them.
In my life I have known a number of them, beginning with my diminutive mother who was less than five feet tall but whom everyone remembers as a giant. Faith Pillow is such a classic woman.
Immediately, one not in the know might ask how can she be classic and most of us don’t know who or what she was with that odd name. Faith Pillow is her real name—not a stage get up to attract attention but rather her parent’s blessing to be embodied.
Faith: to believe even when evidence is scant. Pillow: to offer succor, comfort and rest to the weary. And in this world, we are all wayfaring pilgrims wrestling with doubt and seeking shelter.
It seems as though the seventies was their era. Every community had one or two of these ancient ones, someone whose voice was a comforter, a winter blanket, a summer satin sheet, a supportive mattress of infinite softness.
They were never commercially successful. Rather than cross over they shouldered the burden of carrying our people’s crucifixion cross: two poles, the stake of capitalism and the cross bar of color, executed them but they rose despite the endless death blows dealt on their heads.
Listen to these black women. Or as Mari Evans so presciently stated in her classic poem about these classic women: “Look on me and be renewed.”
* * *
For more info on Faith Pillow, I encourage you to read her brief autobiography
. But to really know her you must hear her.
Kentucky born, Chicago matured, Amsterdam sheltered. Faith was never professionally produced on a major label and as a result most of work is either out of print or not available in the USA. Three albums and a batch of free downloads are available on her website.
It is criminal (albeit not unusual) that such a huge talent went under-recorded. Fortunately one of the albums that is available is a snapshot of Faith at the height of her performance prowess. Recorded in performance at Orphans in Chicago, Faith Pillow Live 1981
is truly a classic recording.
Originally simply titled Faith Pillow
, the album is difficult to find even in this age of internet downloads. The Celeste Records, Japanese import is available (and worth every penny of it’s moderately expensive cost) on Faith’s website
Faith deserves a better recording than the one step above adequate audio quality of her live album. Technical limitations not withstanding, we are nevertheless fortunate to have the document—her Chicago club appearances could easily have consisted of little more than rumor and memory among the limited number of fans who did get to experience her performances in the Windy City.
Back in the 20th century, quality recordings required money, professional equipment and skilled technicians to produce what today is commonplace with a hand-held digital recorder and high quality microphones. There were many efforts at independent recording but few of those efforts have survived, and of that few, only a handful are technically of top quality.
However, what surmounts all of the technical and commercial limitations is Faith’s vitality and consummate artistry. In Chicago she had been working a long-term gig with a simpatico working band of excellent musicians grounded in jazz. Her band mates matched her musical brilliance.
This is the kind of music that millions of us both need and love but music we so seldom receive. The reasons for the scarcity of such music are myriad, not the least of which is that this music promotes integrity and independent thinking, the exact opposite of most commercially successful music. Think of Nina Simone—how valuable her music, how little this society as a whole honored her. Faith is a member of that same clan of fierce warrior women. She would rather starve that sing bullshit for her supper. She wanted something few black female singers are allowed to achieve in America; Faith wanted to be an artist, not a sex object.
In one sense she birthed herself in Chicago after years of toiling in big cities, small towns and places in between. In another sense, if she intended to keep producing her music, she had to leave to keep from being buried beneath bullshit.
For a black woman seeking to be accepted as a serious artist, the opportunities were few, the choices were hard. By the end of the eighties, cultural repression was the order of the day, and assimilation and debasement were expected of you every night.
If you look at pictures of Faith, you can see why she had to leave home: hometown Louisville, Kentucky and homeland USA. Hell, she’d catch hell trying to make it in two-thousand-whatever America, you can imagine what it was like thirty or forty years ago.
By 1980 Madison Avenue had been working double-time to exile black pride to the auction block of commerce, sold to the lowest bidder; plus a cultural Cointelpro-program was instituted to make sure that clowns, jesters, charlatans, con artists, convicts, silly motherfuckers and sex-symbols became the pathological definitions of black beauty.
The eighties and nineties found Faith working in Europe. In 1989 she moved to Amsterdam and was based in the Netherlands until returning to the States in 1996.
She was both an exquisite interpreter of a wide range of material as well as a major composer of serious songs that addressed the inevitable personal and intimate zig-zags that particularly disrupt the careers of sensitive artists who are socially aware and serious about creating art rather than mainly focused on making it in the marketplace.
Far more than a lovely lounge act, Faith Pillow pushed herself to create meaningful music. Although she could have had more success commercially if she had assimilated into the prevailing style, she chose the more difficult path.
Faith’s short natural haircut was emblematic of her non-commercial musical commitment, or as she declaims with heartbreaking honesty in her song “Sanity”
: “decide what it’s going to be / your music or your sanity / and you know the music won.”
Independent artists frequently suffer the severe limitations of having to produce themselves. Most often they have no one who is both trustworthy and skilled who can take care of the business aspects. There are a myriad of details that are not the music itself but if left untended, these details detract from the recording process and sometimes subvert, if not completely destroy what could have been a beautiful project. And beyond making records, unattended or mishandled business affairs inevitably cripple if not deform an entire career.
I am thankful for what is available. As my father used to say: air is better than nair, meaning a little something is better than a lot of nothing.
In the case of Faith’s available recordings, their distracting limitations notwithstanding, we must give thanks that the work of a classic vocalist was saved from the oblivion of inadequate or nonexistent documentation that shrouds far, far too many black artists.
Born August 22, 1954, I wish that she was with us today. I miss her talent but I also want to salute her, to sing her praises. Like many, many of our ancestors who died fighting for freedom, valiant warriors who were born, lived, struggled and passed on, like them Faith Pillow gave far, far more than she received.
These few words are a marker to commemorate the passage of a classic woman who moved through our lives and whose recorded work continues to find sympathetic vibration in our souls.
Faith Pillow may no longer physically be in the house, but spiritually she continues, resounding in the heart homes of those of us who are blessed with the opportunity to hear recordings of Faith’s song.
Long live Faith Pillow.
As long as we have breath, as long as we have ears, may we forever experience the seriously beautiful music of Faith Pillow.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Faith Pillow Playlist
From Faith Pillow Solo
01 “Early In The Morning”
02 “Magic Eyes”
From Faith Pillow Live 1981
03 “Shady Lady”
05 “Natural Woman”
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