Considering the rocky road she has traveled, award-winning D.C. blues artist Jenny Langer is remarkably upbeat in conversation. She laughs often and is extremely frank, even when relating the routine health checkup that likely saved her life.
“My doctor saw something on a test that was a little abnormal, and she insisted that we do it again,” Langer said recently. “Had it been up to me, I probably would have said ‘It’s probably nothing, we’ll just check again next year.’”
That “little abnormality” was far from nothing; it was cervical cancer. Langer, then only in her early-30s, assumed the disease struck women much older than herself. However, the American Cancer Society reports that such a diagnosis is most frequent among women aged 35 to 44.
“We were able to catch it in its very early stages,” says Langer, who has been cancer-free for six years. “It doesn’t matter what age you are, you should still go to your doctor once a year, do the regular tests.”
Yes, even if you’re an aspiring musician, struggling to make ends meet. The myth of youthful invincibility can bite you, Langer says, and thus it’s important to regularly see the doctor, even if you don’t think you can afford insurance.
“Had I had that mindset,” Langer said, “I might not be having this same conversation right now.”
The cancer scare lit a fire under her, the musician said, and pushed her to make some necessary changes in her life. She got divorced and subsequently wrote and recorded new music at a fevered pace—saying she was no longer content “waiting for other people to discover” her talents.
Langer spent her young life in the San Francisco Bay Area. In high school, she discovered classic rock, much of it from acts native to Northern California. She was drawn to rock royalty such as the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin, and using that as a starting point, Langer worked backwards to uncover the component ribosomes that made up rock ‘n’ roll’s DNA.
“I really wanted to know what those artists who I was hearing on the radio were listening to when they were my age,” she said, “and [for] a lot of them, it was blues.”
Indeed, the so-called British Invasion was merely a way that White artists from the United Kingdom sold back to Americans the Black music of the Mississippi Delta—but with its own spin. Accordingly, Langer sought out the roots that stoked the creativities of artists such as Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton.
“I identified a lot with the rawness and the human emotion that is in it,” Langer said. “Both the ups and the downs of the human experience—which I think is part of why people love music in the first place: to be able to put what they can’t find the words for into music. And for me, the blues kind of encapsulates that so perfectly.”
To chase her own dreams, Langer left California, first for Boston to study at the vaunted Berklee College of Music. D.C. has been her home for a decade, which on paper seems an odd choice for a blues artist compared to the more traditional hotspots of Memphis, Chicago, or New Orleans, but the capital was where Langer chose to follow her muse.
Langer believes that “D.C. blues” results from the unique meeting of piedmont, or Appalachian style, with the homegrown Anacostia-style blues typified by such Washington royalty as Eleanor Ellis.
“It’s going to be more of an acoustic guitar sound that’s marrying what you’re finding in the Appalachian Mountains and some of the folk music with blues style,” Langer said of the Anacostia paradigm.
But even that differs from the “Anacostia Delta” blues, which was the favored musical style of Danny Gatton and Roy Buchanan.
“For whatever reason, they’re nationally known yet never completely break out of this area,” Langer said. “But we throw our arms around their songs, and we embrace it as the homegrown blues sound.”
Langer takes inspiration where she can find it. Quite often, this occurs as she is navigating the DMV’s notoriously traffic-clogged freeways. Thankfully, she can hum a melody into her smartphone to flesh out later on her home piano.
“In the car, it’s my own little personal space of sound, where I can be singing out loud and no one’s going to judge it,” Langer said. “Sometimes, I’ll try out melodies or phrasing out loud, and if I like it, I’ll use the apps on my phone to record what I come up with—that way I don’t forget it later.
“And, as a vocalist, when I’m writing songs, I want to write things that are going to feel good for me to sing.”
Unsurprisingly, Langer’s compositions often focus on lost or missed love, a touchstone of the blues. “The One That Got Away” is a jazzy tune that infuses the pain of its lyrics with fortitude as Langer sings “everything I see, everything I read reminds me of you, dear.”
“I think everybody has had heartbreak in their lives, so when they hear a song with lyrics like that, they’re like ‘I identify with that,’” Langer said. “Maybe they’re going through it right in the moment when they hear the song, and it’s a strange little piece of comfort when you know that someone else has felt the way that you have.”
“The One That Got Away” was written amid Langer’s divorce, but the drive to commit it on acetate came at least partly from her cancer scare—and the drive to push herself to compose as much as possible.
“If you’re not putting out the best possible music and material that you can, what are you doing it for?” she said, adding that she’s enjoyed a fruitful relationship with Cancer Can Rock!, which provides musicians going through such scary times a way to continue expressing themselves. “Thanks to my experience with Cancer Can Rock! and Jim Ebert, who is a producer, it really gave me the confidence to step outside of my own head and just say, ‘Well, if people like it they like it, and if they don’t, they don’t, but at least I did it.’
“And thank God they did like it,” she added with a laugh.
Langer was inducted into New York’s Blues Hall of Fame—not to be confused with the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame in Memphis—in 2012; at 27, she was the youngest inductee at that time. The hall of fame recognized Langer’s work with D.C.’s own Charlie Sayles, which included traveling with him to perform in China.
“They accept state nominations, so every state can send in nominations of blues artists from their state, and then the organization decides who is merit-worthy,” Langer explains. “So it was the state of Virginia that nominated me, and New York accepted me.”
In addition to her solo work, Langer formed the all-female Honey Larks in 2020, with whom she will perform the entirety of the Rolling Stones’ album “Sticky Fingers” on Oct. 21 at Pearl Street Warehouse. She has also joined the L.A. band the Boneshakers, and her fall calendar also includes jamming with Dave Kline at Blues Alley Nov. 22, and a “burlesque brunch show” hosted by Langer & Moonshine Society at Pearl Street Warehouse on Nov. 20.
Langer says she is now in a stable relationship and not taking anything for granted, as she might have done before her cancer diagnosis. She says even her divorce and medical trials provided positive lessons she will keep in mind as she moves forward—and reminds other people to keep on top of their medical checkups.
“There’s a reason why [tests] are there: so you can catch things when it’s early enough to do something about it,” Langer said. “Without your health you got nothing, right?”
To hear more of Jenny Langer’s music, and for information on upcoming gigs, go to https://www.jennylanger.com/.
A native of New Jersey, Eric Althoff has published articles in “The Washington Post,” “Los Angeles Times,” “Napa Valley Register,” “Black Belt,” DCist, ScreenComment.com and Luxe Getaways. He produced the Emmy-winning documentary, “The Town That Disappeared Overnight,” and has covered the Oscars live at the Dolby Theater. He lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with his wife, Victoria.
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