'Queen of the Swamp Blues' explores Mississippi Delta culture at UAlberta

Kat Danser performs "My Mama Do" from her 2010 album, Passin'-A-Time

(Edmonton) “Please, don’t sing!” That was the message Kat Danser heard again and again when she was growing up on a farm in Saskatchewan. She has a contralto voice—deeper than most females—and to her family’s ear it just didn’t sound right.

But Danser loved music. She remembers playing John Denver’s Country Roads over and over on her father’s reel-to-reel when she was about three, until she’d learned every nuance of the song. By eight years old, however, she’d given up singing whenever anyone was within earshot, except perhaps the animals in the barnyard.

It wasn’t until she was in her thirties that she decided to start singing again, and this time things were different. Within a year of picking up her first guitar, and teaching herself the blues by imitating “the best of the best,” she recorded her first album in 2002. In 2007 she exploded onto the local blues scene with Somethin’ Familiar, earning a Western Canadian Music Award nomination for best blues album. Her latest, released just last week, is Baptized in the Mud, a meditation on the gospel roots of the blues partly inspired by her graduate research in ethnomusicology at the U of A.

“I realized very early on that I didn’t want to be a knock-off of other great artists,” she says. “I have something in me that needs to be said, and it’s stronger than my need to impersonate.”

She is now known in Western Canada as “Queen of the Swamp Blues,” writing and performing a down-and-dirty, Mississippi Delta variety of the genre that is both gutsy and transcendent. She’s played all the major festivals and gets regular radio airplay.

After the success of Somethin’ Familiar, she received a Canada Council grant, left her 22-year career as a caregiver at the U of A hospital and headed for Mississippi, where she spent six months under the tutelage of legends David “Honeyboy” Edwards and KoKo Taylor.

Blues master with a master’s degree

The experience was profound, she says, adding, “but I didn’t have a language for it.” After giving a presentation to folkwaysAlive! at the U of A’s Canadian Centre for Ethnomusicology, she decided to go back to school to learn that language.

She has now completed a master’s degree in ethnomusicology, exploring what she calls “the most bizarre music I’d ever heard,” a vintage variety of country blues called fife and drum. That research ended up actually making a difference in the lives of those who keep the music alive.

“I learned there was only one family in the world [the Turners] with the lineage for that, so it became increasingly important and urgent to do my master’s on that type of music—to help those people preserve it.

"Part of what came out of my thesis was the recommendation that I go back to Mississippi and return all that I had collected to the family, because they had no record of their history."

And so return to the Delta she did, helping generate a petition to seek compensation from the descendants of Alan Lomax, the musicologist who had initially exploited fife and drum music for profit. Within six months, says Danser, the Lomax family agreed to set up a charitable foundation.

"I have a mind that needs to be fed,” says Danser. “I'm also very opinionated and have a lot of justice issues, so if I smell something wrong, I want to be able to research that sucker to death."

“I must make a difference”

Now she’s launching into a doctorate, determined, again, to do work that has a discernible impact on people’s lives. "I must make a difference somehow—I want my degree to count," she says. This time she hopes to focus on teaching music in the Edmonton Women’s Institution as a way to alleviate depression and anxiety.

"Looking back at the most rewarding performances I've ever done, I'd have to say it was at the Women's Institution,” says Danser. “I really care about improving our community and understanding its cultural complexities. And there's no place like a prison to see those complexities mixed with a lot of wounds, and a lot of anxiety and depression.

“When you play music it means something to the musician and the people who hear it. How do we begin to understand the healing capacity of music and begin to measure what happens physiologically?”

These days Danser dreams of an academic career in the long run, but with her recent success she sometimes feels torn between teaching, research and performing. “I’ve tried to make a choice between performance and teaching, and I just can’t. But I think ultimately teaching is how I’ll make a living.”

On the other hand, as her Delta mentors once told her, the blues is a calling. "You must bring yourself to the music,” they told her. “Do not do what other people have done. You have every aspect you need to be a blues performer—just be prepared to be poor your whole life.”

“And so far, I’ve been able to manage that,” she says with her trademark contralto laugh.