The Struggles and Triumphs of Bessie Jones, Big Mama Thornton, and Ethel Waters

Ethel Waters - Part 1: 1910s to 1930s

Studio portrait of Ethel Waters sitting in front of leafy background. Photograph by Carl Van Vechten. / 146 Central Park West / Reproduced with permission.

Carl Van Vechten photograph/Beinecke Library ©Van Vechten Trust. 
Photograph by Carl Van Vechten used with permission of the Van Vechten Trust.

Studio Portrait of Ethel Waters taken in 1939.

Carl Van Vechten photograph/Beinecke Library ©Van Vechten Trust. Used with Permission of Van Vechten Trust.

The Early Years

Ethel Waters (October 31, 1896 – September 1, 1977) was born in Chester, Pennsylvania. As a child, Waters constantly moved around the country along with family members who raised her, particularly her grandmother Sally Anderson. Prior to working professionally in the entertainment world, Waters worked as a chambermaid to make ends meet. She earned $4.25 a week cleaning rooms and doing laundry for guests at the Harrod Apartments in Philadelphia.

Waters recounting how Braxton & Nugent scouted her at a saloon where she performed the “St. Louis Blues” (1974).

Waters started performing professionally after being approached to sing at a local saloon in Philadelphia. Waters expressed to Willie Ruff that she did not plan on becoming an entertainer. While discussing the night she was approached to perform, Waters stated, “The main girl who was to sing didn’t show. They practically drug me on the floor and made me get up there.” She also told Ruff, “I never was show minded and I said, ‘No. I don't want to be on stage.’ But I love show people. I just like to pay homage to them.”

Waters’ Recording Career

Waters began her recording career in the 1920s when the US experienced a blues craze. The craze began with the success of Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues,” which sold 75,000 records within a month of its release. As a result, record labels sought out black female performers to capitalize on Smith’s success. This included Black Swan Records, a black-owned record label founded by Harry Pace.

In 1921, Waters’ recorded her hit song “Down Home Blues” for Black Swan, which was the company’s first blues release. Like other female blues artists, Waters sings about a woman wronged by her partner in “Down Home Blues.” She sings,

Lord, I been mistreated, ain't got no time to lose.

My train is leaving,

And I got the down-home blues

(Full lyrics here)


Waters - "Down Home Blues" (YouTube)

Daphne Duval Harrison states, “Although Waters had reportedly been earning only thirty-five dollars a week at the time, she convinced Harry Pace to pay her one hundred dollars to record ‘Down Home Blues.’ He acquiesced to her demand and was rewarded by good sales, which pulled Black Swan out of debt for a short while.” When talking about the record with Ruff, Waters stated that “it was an instant sensation in New York…and everybody was crazy about it, and it was a big hit.”

Waters went on to release other hit records including “Dinah” (1925), "Sweet Georgia Brown" (1925), "Am I Blue?” (1929), “Stormy Weather” (1933), and “Heat Wave” (1933), the latter popularized in the musical As Thousands Cheer.

*Transcript for the interview clip featured on this page is available here