Perpetual Change — Baby Dee

| Dec 22, 2008
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What do a bear suit, a harp, and a bad moment as a tree surgeon have in common? Well, in a sane, practical world, probably nothing. But in the life and world of transgender musician Baby Dee, these are all part of her story.

Baby Dee

Baby Dee

Baby Dee is originally from Cleveland, Ohio, and musically has been called unclassifiable, although cabaret (sort of a cross between Tom Waits and Judy Garland) comes closest to an explanation of what she sounds like. She is a singer/songwriter who plays piano as well as harp.

On her latest release, Safe Inside The Day (released at the beginning of 2008), there’s a song entitled “The Dance of Diminishing Possibilities.” It relates the story of an incident Dee witnessed when she was only 4 years old and living in Cleveland with her family. Two local characters, Bobby Slot and Freddy Weiss, decided to destroy an old upright piano in their front yard. This act of keyboard vandalism turned into a block party of sorts for the entire neighborhood.

What I learned was that inside the piano is a cast iron harp that’s hard to wreck,” Dee said. “You can’t just hit it, you have to saw away at it with a hacksaw, and that wasn’t very fun for them. So everything else went to bits, but that cast iron harp inside sort of stayed. The garbage men wouldn’t take it, and it sat on their front lawn for months. And I fell in love with it.”

The harp inside the piano kind of became a personal metaphor for Dee. As with most trans people, it would take years to find the girl inside the boy.

In 1972, Dee left for New York and eventually launched her music career by starting as street performer. This is where the aforementioned bear costume comes in. She performed in the bear suit in Central Park, while playing harp. “I just had this fuzzy picture in my mind of something sort of festive playing a harp,” she said. “I don’t know, it just sort of came to me.”

This was the street gig side of Dee, but there was also a serious musician in that bear suit. She admits to an obsession with Gregorian Chant and Renaissance music. Dee’s conducting instructor suggested to her that she learn to play organ and find a job in a church.

“Within weeks of him saying that,” Dee remembers, “…I had a big job up in the South Bronx that became what I thought would be my life’s work.”

It’s not surprising that the church gig didn’t last long. Traditional churches and transgendered keyboardists aren’t always a good mix, especially when SRS is involved. “I was good at the sacred and I was good at the profane,” Dee says of the experience. “I could never get the hang of anything in between and If went from the street to the church to the street again and then I stopped.”

Before leaving New York, though, Dee ended up working in the side shows at Coney Island. She was billed as the Bilateral Hermaphrodite and worked for the Kamikaze Freak Show and the Rindlestiff Circus. When that ended, she decided to head back home to help care for her aging parents.

“I found myself back in Cleveland and began to write songs,” she said. “Then I stopped writing songs. I though I’d said everything I had to say and there was nothing left to say so I simply stopped.”

Safe Inside The Day

Safe Inside The Day

This is sort of the right time to talk about the incident as a tree surgeon. The following narrative is from an article by Ben Thompson, originally published in The Telegraph (England), February 2008:

Despite benefitting from the patronage of kindred spirit Antony Hegarty (of
Antony and the Johnsons), on whose first album she played harp, she was at
this point living as a virtual recluse. Then came the job as a tree surgeon. “The
cool thing was it was totally self-obliterating. I actually dressed up like a guy…no
matter what I wore-the big bulky jacket, the hard hat-those lumberjacks were the
only bit of male society that’s never had any problem treating me like a woman.”
But…her arboreal idyll came to an end after an unfortunate incident with a sudden
change of wind direction and a tree falling on a house…

Unemployed and broke (she had to pay for the ruined roof with her own money) Dee had no option but to embrace her musical destiny. A support slot with alt-country maverick Bonnie “Prince” Billy and guitarist Matt Sweeney led to this illustrious duo offering to produce her.

The end result of this collaboration is her newest album, Safe Inside The Day. Prior to this project, Baby Dee has also released Little Window (2000); A Book Of Songs For Anne Marie (2001); Baby Dee (EP, 2001); Love’s Small Song (2002); Live In Turin (2004); Made For Love (single, 2005); and The Robin’s Tiny Throat (2007-a double CD collection of material from Little Window and Love’s Small Song).

She has also toured with the group Current 93 and performed with The Dresden Dolls in London. They went on to include Baby Dee as part of their Love At The Roadhouse DVD.

Most of this past year has been spent touring, and it looks like a good portion of 2009 will be spent on the road as well. Despite all the twists and turns of this unusual artist’s even more unusual career, Baby Dee has been able to turn her pain and frustration, along with her quirkiness into musical assets that will keep her writing and playing for a long time.

“The inside is bigger than the outside, more important and less destructible,” she said. Obviously, Baby Dee has reached a place where many transgendered people never get to go…safe inside herself.

For more information on Baby Dee and to order CDs, please check out her website.)

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Pam Degroff

About the Author ()

Pamela DeGroff been writing for TGForum since the start of 1999. Her humor column, The Pamela Principle, ran until 2005. She started the Perpetual Change music column in May of 1999, and in 2008, Angela Gardner came up with the idea for the Transvocalizers column and put Pam to work on that. Pamela was a regular contributor to Transgender Community News until that magazine's demise. While part of a support group in Nashville called The Tennessee Vals she began writing for their newsletter, and also wrote for several local GLBT alternative newspapers in Tennessee. Pamela is currently a staff reporter for a small town daily paper in Indiana, and is also a working musician.

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