It’s 9 o’clock on a Saturday when Sister Blue begins to play. There isn’t much of a stage at The Pines Tavern in Bristol, just a raised platform.
But tonight, it belongs to her.
Strumming along is her friend of 30 years Mark Furman, who said she’s “the best singer I know — just traditional old-time blues. You don’t hear singers like that anymore.”
Sister Blue is the stage name of Jewish musician Nanette Arndts, 56, who has performed throughout Greater Philadelphia since 1981.
Music is Arndts’ “bread and butter.” She writes her own songs and plays drums and guitar and sings backup for other bands. Her love of music was instilled by her parents, a World War II Army veteran and a Holocaust survivor. While her father preferred jazz and her mother listened to classical, for Arndts, it’s all about the blues.
“It’s basically a music of passion. It’s gut-soulfully music,” Arndts said. “It’s sarcasm, and the big thing about blues is there’s an honesty about it. It’s supposed to be clever. People think of blues as depressing music to bring you down and make you sad, but that’s not the case. It’s supposed to be music that lifts you up.”
To date, Arndts has released three albums: “Red, White & Sister Blue” in 2002, “Lust, Pain, And Other Temptations” in 2005 and “I Should’ve Said No” in 2012. In a review of the first CD for the Reading Eagle, Jim Speese described Arndts’ voice as “a sort of amalgamation of Janis Joplin and Bonnie Raitt” and a “smooth but emotional wail that walks the line between self-parody and soul-searching.”
Arndts grew up in Northeast Philadelphia, where she resides. She attended the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts. At first, she was a dance major, but later switched to music. At 17, she picked up the guitar, and at 18 began playing professionally. She said it wasn’t easy performing live as a women in the early 1980s, but eventually she got the chance to play at festivals and open for other artists.
Many of Arndts’ original tracks are “sarcastic songs about romantic experiences, some that weren’t as romantic as they should have been” or mistakes made. But one thing she didn’t regret was never giving up her music. Arndts chose not to pursue a full-time music career due to being a single mother, so she worked to balance raising two kids, Melody and Jordan, with her passion.
“I had so many people when I was raising my kids as a single mom say, ‘If you were really a good mother, you would get a real job,’” Arndts said. “I tried to keep the best of both worlds, family and music.”
Some of her music is rooted in anger derived from her Jewish inheritance. Her father, Leonard Goldman, was born in Philadelphia to Russian Jews who immigrated to escape the pogroms. Her mother, Faye Cukier, is a German Jew of Polish decent who survived the Holocaust by hiding in Belgium.
“It’s a part of who I am, the pain of being a daughter of a Holocaust survivor,” Arndts said. “I don’t want to sound whiny, but when you grow up with a Holocaust survivor, it’s different, even from other American Jews. Something was taken away from them, and my mother just wants to live every moment. It’s almost like she forgave, and I held on to the anger. So it’s therapeutic to release (it) creatively.”
Cukier retold her story of survival in her 2006 autobiography, “Fleeing the Swastika.” The book was the focus of an article published by German news broadcaster Deutsche Welle. Cukier’s parents immigrated to Cologne, Germany, in 1919 where she was born a few years later. There her father made a decent living as a scrap-metal dealer.
In 1938, Cukier and her mother traveled to Belgian on tourist visas, only a few months prior to Kristallnacht. Cukier and her mother settled in Brussels where her father eventually joined them and there they stayed, unable to get visas to the United States. Cukier didn’t go into hiding when the Nazi occupation of Belgium began in 1940. Instead, she dyed her hair blonde and would go out shopping, something Jews were not allowed to do.
“She said the important thing about being a Jew in Nazi Germany was to absolutely be seen, because if you weren’t seen, then they knew you were a Jew,” Arndts said. “So she was pretty brave.”
To support the family, Cukier taught French and English and even helped a man sell diamonds on the black market. As things got worse, the family eventually had to go into hiding with a Belgian family. The Deutsche Welle article tells how Cukier witnessed the family hiding in the apartment below get discovered, with the father shot and mother and daughter sent away. One of her family’s protectors was also murdered by the Nazis. But liberation came in 1944, and the family then returned to Cologne to rebuild their lives.
About four years later, she immigrated to Philadelphia where she married Goldman. In her new life, Cukier sang chansons (lyric-driven French songs) at night clubs and worked as a belly dancing instructor.
“She was a wild one, and she still is,” Arndts said.
Goldman died in 2017, but Cukier is still alive and well, living in Cologne at 97.
As for Arndts, she plans to spend her time attending activities at Bensalem Jewish Outreach Center, visiting with her 2-year-old grandson Brayden and playing the blues. A year from now, she’d like to record her fourth album, but in the meantime, she’ll
continue to perform at area venues about twice a week.
“I hope to die on stage,” Arndts said. “There’s a saying, if you want to be a musician, it’s a terrible profession. If you have to be a musician, then it’s the best profession. It’s something I just have to do. It’s like breathing air, I have to do it. I love it. It defines who I am. It feels like my purpose.”
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