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

Transcripts - Ethel Waters

These are the transcripts for all the audio clips of Willie Ruff interviewing Ethel Waters. The corresponding pages where the audio clips are embedded have been linked below. Ethel Waters is represented by W. in the transcripts.

Note: Some of the sentences in the transcripts below are not full sentences due to Waters' speaking pattern. She often changes her thoughts and words mid-sentence during her interivew. As a result, dashes are used to indicate changes—like this—to break up a sentence that might otherwise not make sense.

Ethel Waters - Part 1: 1910s to 1930s

Click Link Below to Return to Page with the Audio Clips

Waters discusses the start of her career. She tells the story of being scouted by entertainment duo Braxton and Nugent after they saw her perform “St. Louis Blues” in a saloon in Philadelphia.

W.   The main girl who was to sing didn’t show. So, they practically drug me on the floor and made me get up there and sing down. I knew one piece at that time aside from “St. Louis Blues.”

And that's “When you're a long, long way from home” and that happened to be—and I was only around the corner, but it seemed like 10 miles.

But that same night, these two scoundrels, Braxton and Nugent, and bless their heart, they were performers. They was in there when they heard me sing “St. Louis Blues,” and this voice and they realized I’m an amateur. So, they come and asked me did I want go on—I said “No.”

And, I never was show minded, that's the funniest thing. I never was great—that's why I forget it so quick. 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. I sit there and watch him and I just think they were just— “Me? Them? No.” [Laughter].

The result was that he went to see—I said, “I have to get my mother's consent,” and she gave it. So, they took me to Baltimore at twelve—no, nine dollars a week! And, I had, out of that, I had to pay my room and board. Well, that was only three dollars if you room with somebody. And, I used to make so much money. They’d throw it. When they got me there, I was scared and they sit me on a chair and I sat there and sang. And, the people just throw—almost hurt me throwing money. That's how I come to sing the “St. Louis Blues.”


Ethel Waters - Part 2: 1930s

Click Link Below to Return to Page with the Audio Clips

Clip 1: Ethel Waters speaking to Willie Ruff about Irving Berlin's inspiration for "Supper Time," Berlin's decision to cast her in As Thousands Cheer, and her thoughts on acting (1974).

Note: Berlin heard about the story of an African American man lynched in Florida and decided to write “Supper Time” from the perspective of the wife of a lynched man.  When Waters speaks about “he” in the transcript below, she is referring to Irving Berlin.

W.  He [Irving Berlin] wanted to do something dramatic to feel, to bring home to the people as a whole about the cruelty of mob violence. And, it was a man that was lynched and he was trying to find a man that they could have a scene to dramatize this situation.

When he came up there to The Cotton Club in Harlem, George Dewey Washington was also a top name and was singing up there too. And he had a big voice. He was known from the entertainment, not as big as mine, but I mean he was well-known. He [Berlin] saw me do “Stormy Weather” and he switched, because he realized that George had the voice for singing, but he was afraid that the message wouldn't get across and being a colored man too.

So, he explained it to me that he wanted to see if I would do a number. He said, "I want you to show the agony of the family that's left behind.” Now, here's where I use—anything I do I can take a reference from my personal life. That's why people, you know the say I'm an actress, I'm not an act—I relive.



Clip 2: Ethel Waters speaking to Willie Ruff about how she drew on personal experiences with lynching when performing "Supper Time" in the musical As Thousands Cheer (1974).

Note: In the last statement below, Waters appears to stating that when Irving Berlin advised her on how to portray the story of the wife a lynched man, Waters only had to remember her past experiences with lynching in order to give a realistic performance.

W.   I played Macon, Georgia and I got there just a few—they had just removed say about a half hour before I got there the remains of a person that had been lynched. A man that had been lynched. And, you never sensed the pall that comes over it. Oh, it was just—you could feel it. You didn't see nothing. This is an actual fact. I don't know if I can express it the way that I would without the Lord's help.

And then the irony of it, I stayed with the family of the lynched man. That's where they, you know, they took in performers. And nothing was said, but oh the grief that, you know, and the fear. And then, I'd also been almost lynched myself once for cussing out the man in Atlanta, Georgia. So, I know what that fig—[Laughter]. The result was this man—When Mr. Berlin was telling me about how to —I only had to remember.


Ethel Waters - Part 3: 1940s to 1970s

Click Link Below to Return to Page with the Audio Clips


Clip 1: Waters speaking to Willie Ruff about acting in Cabin in the Sky (musical). Waters discusses turning the role down until changes were made to the musical's script.


Note: Waters refers to Lynn Root, writer of Cabin in the Sky, below.

W.   So, this musical—they wanted to use me really to put somebody else across and I never was a person—I didn't even want to be in Cabin in the Sky, because I didn't like the trend that this man that wrote it give it. He [Lynn Root] wanted to play games with my blessed savior, and I don't let nobody, with me in it, defile, defame, or do anything contrary then to treat it with—I won't even listen to a hymn that’s jam too much, or jazz too much. It's awful. We're talking about the savior. He’s sacred! Now, it's alright if you don't, but just allow me my respect for my reticence in not wanting to be a part of it.

So, when they brought me this play, Little Joe was a rat. He was no good and neither was Petunia in the original version. See, I'm giving it to you. This from the horse's mouth whose name is Ethel Waters. [Laughter] The result was, when he brought me the book, this man Root, I told him I said, “Uh uh, no way.” I said, “I don't want—this is a farce.” I said, “I don't care what preacher you have been to. I cannot use these things and sort of play my precious savior cheap.” I said, “No! I'm not going to do it.”

And, I turned it down. I've turned things down so many times they keep coming back. So, what happened to make a long story short, he finally said, “Well, what would you do?” I said, “Well, I have to give it my treatment.” And, I don't change things. I change the meaning. And to me, Little Joe was weak. He wasn't bad. He was weak and Petunia was patient and faithful because she believed God could help him. But the other Petunia didn't want nothing from Little Joe but his body and the more he beat her, the more she liked it. You see, not me. Not Ethel. Regardless of the name, you're acting. That's why I say I don't act, I relive ‘cause if Little Joe ever touched me, I’d have killed him.


Clip 2: Waters speaks on inspiring Carol Channing.

W.   Now, you know, here’s one of your biggest names. And I'm not saying—with only love in my heart, the one that I inspired and never fails to tell it, is Carol Channing. I've been an inspiration to her. You know from—I mean from the professional—She got her start in giving an audition of me that got her a job. She tells it, not me, ‘cause I didn’t know it.