Bertha Idaho

Bertha Jordan, b. c. 1895 in Georgia, date of death unknown, classic female blues singer. She recorded four songs in 1928 and 1929. Little is known of her life outside music.

Idaho may have been born in Georgia about 1895. Her singing career commenced in the 1910s, in a traveling song and dance act with her husband, John. In 1915, they appeared with the Florida Blossom Minstrels and, in Milledgeville, Georgia, performed "Jelly Roll" and "Brother Low Down". She recorded four songs: "Graveyard Love" and "You've Got the Right Eye, but You're Peeping at the Wrong Keyhole" on May 2, 1928, and "Down on Pennsylvania Avenue" and "Move It On Out of Here" on May 25, 1929, all of which were recorded in New York City. Tom Delaney wrote "Down on Pennsylvania Avenue", with lyrics referring to his own bad luck: "Now if you want good lovin' and want it cheap, just drop around about the middle of the week, when the broad is broke and can't pay rent, get good lovin' boys, for 15 cents." There is some dispute about whether the piano accompaniment on Idaho's recordings was by Delaney or by Clarence Williams. The labels on the records state that three of the songs were composed by Delaney; Idaho is credited as the writer of "You've Got the Right Eye, but You're Peeping at the Wrong Keyhole". Her stage career was contemporary with her recordings. In 1928, she starred in Mississippi Steppers, a touring review in the vaudeville style, and the following year in Georgia Peaches, which she co-produced. By 1930, she was known as Bertha Jordan and was based in Baltimore, Maryland. No details of her death have been recorded.

Idaho's work might have remained obscure but for two factors: she was mentioned by John Fahey in the liner notes for his influential debut album, Blind Joe Death, and her recordings were reissued by Rosetta Reitz. Fahey's album Blind Joe Death was originally released by Takoma Records in 1959, in a pressing of fewer than one hundred copies. Fahey mentioned Idaho in the liner notes for the album, which gained significance with later reissues. Reitz's music collections were built on old 78-rpm records of lesser-known performers, including Idaho, Valaida Snow, Georgia White, Bessie Brown, and Maggie Jones, and long-forgotten songs from better-known artists, such as Ida Cox, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Mae West. Reitz's collection particularly featured classic female blues singers of the 1920s. She reissued early recordings on her own label, Rosetta Records.


By Eugene Chadbourne
The recording career of classic blues singer Bertha Idaho could not possibly be compared to the ample potato crop of her namesake state. Indeed, she cut only four songs in 1928 and 1929 with song titles that, if arranged correctly, tell a story right out of a film noir. First, the stage is set "Down on Pennsylvania Avenue." Then, right to the action: "You've Got the Right Eye, But You're Peeping at the Wrong Keyhole" and "Move It on Out of Here," only to wind up with the ghoulish subject of "Graveyard Love," another piece of essential listening for social advocates who propose that rap, punk, and heavy metal artists have introduced objectionable concepts into pop music. In the late '20s, it was songwriters such as Tom Delaney who were cooking up this type of material, in his case perhaps to get even with society for years spent in run-down orphanages. He encouraged Idaho to set new lows for a prostitute's price of services "Down on Pennsylvania Avenue": "Now if you want good lovin' and want it cheap, just drop around about the middle of the week./When the broad is broke and can't pay rent, get good lovin' boys, for 15 cents." Delaney fed material of this ilk to his main collaborator, singer Ethel Waters, as well as the likes of Idaho, Alberta Hunter, and Bessie Smith. The pair of recording sessions that make up the entire Idaho discography represent in their skimpiness a logical explanation for why the name represents a mere hiccup in blues history when listed alongside the likes of Waters, Hunter, or any of the classic blues gals named Smith. It was probably this very level of deep obscurity, as well as the weird-sounding name, that inspired John Fahey to include Idaho in one of his greatest works of written historical fiction, the liner notes to his Blind Joe Death project. The impact of creative forces such as Idaho, whose musical statements continue to circulate slowly through reissues almost like ghosts haunting a house, is a classic element of the so-called positive existentialist outlook. But that might not explain in full why Fahey chose this particular singer as a subject for his tribute, plucked out of an apparently endless cast of obscure blues and old-time music characters. Possessing a "location" nickname or surname is in itself hardly rare in blues, a genre with so many of these types of monikers that AAA "triptych" planners sometimes find themselves staring idly at the blues section in record stores, mentally planning driving itineraries from Georgia Tom to Mississippi Fred McDowell to Bertha Idaho.