Displaced by Katrina, singer Pat Cohen looks for more gigs
SALISBURY — Pat Cohen’s blues singing has taken her to Europe, Australia and South America. In New Orleans, a writer once described her as one of the hardest working people on Bourbon Street.
It was in New Orleans that Cohen honed a performance persona for 13 years as “Mother Blues,” known for her colorful wigs and costuming.
But Hurricane Katrina in 2005 wrecked Cohen’s singing career, led to the looting of her Ninth Ward apartment and forced her to seek public assistance for the first time.
Since that storm forced her displacement, Cohen has lived in Rowan County, relying first on her brother for accommodations, then with her father’s help, paying cash for a house in foreclosure in East Spencer.
She still lives there, and it’s from that home base she has tried to make it solely as a singer for the past eight years. She’s not sure she can do it much longer.
“I’ve been surviving only because I would get big gigs,” she says.
And those big gigs usually were in Europe for the past four years, she explains. Meanwhile, her N.C. music connections remained sparse, especially around Salisbury, and that’s why she’s excited to be performing from 6-8 p.m. Sept. 21 at Tilley Harley-Davidson’s Biker, Blues and BBQ Rally event off Bendix Drive.
“I’m performing for people around the world,” Cohen says, “but when it comes to getting something in my own hometown, it’s tough.”
Cohen, 56, also will sing at the Blues and Burritos event in downtown Mooresville Sept. 20 and at the Carolina BalloonFest in Statesville Oct. 19.
“I would love to get stuff here,” she says. “What I need is a really good booking agent. I’m just sort of a hidden jewel. Nobody knows I’m here.”
Cohen says she is thankful for all the help she has received since moving here from New Orleans.
“I’m so excited to do something in Salisbury because so many people have told me they want to hear me sing,” she says.
“I feel like this is my home.”
A native of Indian Trail, Cohen moved to New Jersey as a child to live with her grandparents. She returned to North Carolina to attend Livingstone College but went back to New Jersey without graduating.
She moved from a casino job in Atlantic City, N.J., to a new casino on the Gulf Coast, leading to the start of her singing career in New Orleans. Singing was something she always wanted to do, from the days she was called on to sing at family events as a little girl.
In New Orleans, Cohen sang at clubs, festivals and corporate events, as well as the Storyville Lounge. She portrayed Ma Rainey and Bess Smith for the House of Blues’ Schoolhouse Blues History Show.
She heeded the warnings and evacuated New Orleans before Katrina hit, persuading friend Merline Kimble and her four grandchildren to accompany her. They all watched Katrina’s devastation on television from Salisbury.
It took her two months to return to New Orleans, and when she did, she realized there was nothing left. Her jewelry, wigs, costumes and sound equipment were stolen, and she salvaged only a few pieces of furniture.
Cohen returned to North Carolina and tried to build a new career from nothing. She acknowledges she struggled emotionally.
“I had so many people say, ‘Just get over it,’ but it’s not that easy after being displaced,” she says.
Cohen says she found some singing appearances in places such as Charlotte, High Point, Mooresville, Winston-Salem and Durham.
Her bigger bookings in Europe originated with the Music Maker Relief Foundation, which supports older blues singers who need help financially.
“I did the very best I possibly could do,” she says. Whenever she sings, people ask for encores and always want her back, Cohen adds.
She has returned to New Orleans a couple of times, staying with friends and singing when possible.
Cohen says she has been looking for a regular, non-singing job this summer, knowing it will be hard to pay this winter’s gas bills for her house without one.
The perfect job would be, of course, a flexible one allowing her to continue outside of work as “Mother Blues.” Cohen knows that’s a tall order.
“I want something more steady,” she says.
Pat Cohen can be reached at 704-433-7680, or email@example.com. Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.