The blues, as fans well know, come from a place of pain, but few performers have to face hazards like these on the way to a concert: “Sweltering heat, fever, wild tigers, Jap snipers, leeches and other insects that latch onto the skin so tight, the only way they can be removed is by burning them off.” Sometimes, she’d have to step over decaying bodies and there was always the prospect of bomb raids.
These were the circumstances in which Alberta Hunter belted out the blues in Assam in 1944, as she attempted to cheer up US troops building the snaking Ledo Road in the C-B-I region between China, Burma and India.
By the same she died at the age of 89 in 1984, Alberta Hunter was a genuine legend – an elegant granny who would sing bawdy blues tunes with the poise of a minister leading a church choir. She’d toured Europe in 1917, started recording prolifically in the 1920s, and in 1928, performed with the great Paul Robeson in the London version of Showboat. So it isn’t surprising that she caused a storm in Assam, when she showed up with a troupe of musicians in the middle of the Second World War to entertain the African-American soldiers who were constructing a snaking road in the jungle from north-eastern India to Kunming in China.