While Ma Rainey was the Mother of the Blues, the greatest of them all was the Empress, Bessie Smith […] Bessie’s empire extended throughout the black community, from the rural South to the urban North, from the roughest sharecroppers’ phonograph to the sophisticated New York theatres. – Giles Oakley
To tell the story of Bessie Smith (April 15, 1894 – September 26, 1937) is to the tell the story of a resilient, fiercely independent woman who was not content to conform to the cultural norms nor expectations of a male dominated society. Instead, Smith and her contemporary Ma Rainey became role models for countless women, challenging gender politics and romanticized representations of marriage and heterosexual relationships. At their emergence, blues was a male phenomenon but they brought it to mainstream audiences and demanded respect on their own terms.
Bessie Smith was not an American, though the experience she relates could hardly have existed outside America; she was a Negro. Her music still remained outside the mainstream of American thought, but it was much closer than any Negro music before it. – LeRoi Jones
Smith was the most popular female blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s. Other early jazz singers were greatly influenced by her sound. Originally nicknamed “Queen of the Blues” by her label, it was the press that upgraded her title to “Empress of the Blues”. Her mesmerizing vocal style was only reinforced by her acting and comedic skills. At the height of her popularity, near riots broke out as those outside theatres clamoured to get in and those inside refused to leave without hearing more.
There are conflicting records surrounding the date of Smith’s birth but it is known that by the time she turned nine, her parents and a brother had died and her sister Viola was caring for the family. To help out, a young Smith began singing and dancing in the streets of Chattanooga, accompanied by her bother Andrew on his guitar. Preferring a spot right in front of the saloon, Smith quickly became a ‘seasoned performer’ and when her eldest brother Clarence left home in 1904 to join a small traveling troupe, Smith would have joined him had she been old enough.
That’s why he left without telling her, but Clarence told me she was ready, even then. Of course, she was only a child. – Clarence’s Widow Maud
Clarence returned with the troupe which now included the well-known singer Ma Rainey eight years later and, following an audition, Smith was hired as a dancer. While Rainey is sometimes credited with teaching Smith to sing, this would likely be overstating the truth. Their contemporaries tell of a relationship that if not downright adversarial, was highly competitive, but the two remained friends after Smith moved on to form her own act in 1913. By 1920, her reputation was established. During that decade, she became the Theater Owners Booking Association circuit’s biggest star and the highest-paid black entertainer of the time. She maintained a packed theatre schedule during the winter months and performed tent shows when the weather was warmer. Her earlier dancing days would do her well as her career progressed.
[…] Bessie Smith, who’s every stage gesture, by the way, was also as much dance movement as anything else. – Albert Murray
Smith was signed by Columbia Records in 1923. Columbia had been looking for female blues singers following the surprising success of “Crazy Blues” recorded for rival Okeh Records by the singer Mamie Smith (no relation) in 1920. With a new market of music directed to African-Americans, “Downhearted Blues” and “Gulf Coast Blues”, the two sides of Smith’s first record, were both hits. (“Downhearted Blues” was first recorded a year earlier by Alberta Hunter for Paramount Records.) Smith’s earliest recordings were issued on Columbia’s regular A-series until the company established a “race records” series with Smith’s “Cemetery Blues” (September 26, 1923) as the first issue.
Over her recording career, Smith made 160 recordings for Columbia. Notable artists including Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, and Fletcher Henderson to name a few, can be heard on some of these records. Her voice, a strong contralto (the lowest of the female vocal ranges), translated well to recordings, even in the early days of the technology when recordings were made acoustically. Once electrical recording was introduced, the immense power of Smith’s voice became even more apparent. Smith’s voice also translated well to radio and Smith took advantage of the emerging technology to reach wider audiences, even in the segregated South.
She used to thrill me at all times, the way she could phrase a note with a certain something in her voice no other blues singer could get. She had music in her soul and feel everything she did. Her sincerity with her music was an inspiration – Louis Armstrong
The majority of Smith’s songs cover topics including rejection, abuse, desertion, and unfaithful lovers, but Smith’s position is one of independence, assertiveness, defiance, and sometimes even violence as she threatens to fight back against her fickle lovers, abusive partners, and oppressors. And Smith wasn’t just talk. Though well known for her big-heartedness and generosity, man or woman, she never apologized for her colour and she would never walk away from a fight.
Bessie wasn’t fooled by those Southern crackers smiling at her. She wasn’t scared of those white people down there. Not Bessie – she would tell anybody to kiss her ass. Nobody messed with Bessie, black or white, it didn’t make no difference – Ruby Walker
During one of her tent shows on a July evening in 1927, robed and hooded Ku Klux Klansmen attempted to disrupt her performance by collapsing the tent. Being informed of what was happening, Smith ordered her prop boys to follow her and ran within 10 feet of the intruders, placed one hand on her hip, and shook a clenched fist at the Klansmen.
What the fuck you think you’re doing’,” she shouted above the sound of the band. “I’ll get the whole damn tent out here if I have to. You just pick up them sheets and run!”
The stunned Klansmen just stood there while Smith continued to hurl obscenitiies at them until the finally faded into the darkness and left. Smith walked back to her prop boys, muttering one of her favourite expressions
I ain’t never heard of such shit.” And, directed at her boys, “And as for you, you ain’t nothing but a bunch of sissies.”
And then Smith continued the show as if nothing had ever happened. This incident and the aftermath was featured in HBO’s film Bessie starring Queen Latifah.
Queen Latifah – Preachin’ the Blues, Bessie (2015)
Only 4 of Smith’s 160 recordings refer to marriage in a neutral way or as an expected condition. Though married herself, her protagonists are rarely wives and almost never mothers. Smith refused to sentementalize relationships as this was not the experience of the black social realities in the era following emancipation. Smith sang what she knew and what she experienced was a husband who was impressed by her money but who never adjusted to show business life or to Smith’s bisexuality and numerous female lovers. Both of them took on partners outside their marriage but it was Smith’s discovery of her husband’s affair and financial support of another singer that ultimately led to the demise of their marriage.
…girls, take this tip from me
Get a working’ man when you marry, and let all these sweet men be
Smith’s work explicitly challenges women’s roles and marriage. There is an honesty in her music about her needs and desires.
I’m a young woman and ain’t done runnin’ ‘round
~Young Woman’s Blues
I wanna be somebody’s baby doll to ease my mind
He can be ugly, he can be black, so long as he can eagle rock and ball the jack
Such affirmations of sexual autonomy and open expressions of female desire give historical voice to the possibilities of equality not articulated elsewhere. – Angela Y. Davis
Bessie Smith – Young Woman’s Blues, 1926
And, just like she wouldn’t back down from a fight, she wasn’t afraid to give a voice to violence against women in a time when secrecy and silence was the norm. Her criticisms were sometimes implied and sometimes explicit, but always giving voice to resistance.
In the Dogon, Yoruba, and other West African cultural traditions, the process of nommo – naming things, forces, and modes – is a means of establishing magical (or in the case of the blues, aesthetic) control over the object of the naming process. Through the blues, menacing problems are ferreted out from the isolated individual experience and restructured as problems shared by the community. As shared problems, threats can be met and addressed within a public and collective context. – Angela Y. Davis
The Great Depression took a great toll on Smith’s career but she never stopped performing, albeit in smaller shows and clubs as the advent of “talkies” ended the days of elaborate vaudeville shows. In 1929, Smith appeared on Broadway in the musical Pansy, singing and performing sundry dance steps, and in the film St. Louis Blues based on W.C. Handy’s song of the same name. Though her performances were acclaimed, the Broadway play was a flop and Smith was said to be its only asset. Unfortunately, the movie which is the only known film of Smith and the only recording not under the control of Columbia, is not an accurate representation of her typical musical accompaniment.
Bessie Smith – St. Louis Blues, 1929
Smith died in 1937, the result of a car crash while traveling between Memphis, Tennessee, and Clarksdale, Mississippi. Her death is often misattributed to a refused admission to a whites-only hospital. Dr. Hugh Smith (no relation), a Memphis surgeon, was among the first people on the scene and has provided the most reliable account of the following events.
The Bessie Smith ambulance would not have gone to a white hospital, you can forget that. Down in the Deep South cotton country, no ambulance driver, or white driver, would even have thought of putting a colored person off in a hospital for white folks. Dr. Hugh Smith
Dr. Smith would later attribute her death to extensive and severe crush injuries to the entire right side of her body, consistent with a sideswipe collision. She never regained consciousness and died the following morning. Her body was returned to Philadelphia where more than 10,000 mourners turned out to pay their respects.
Smith […] didn’t just sing the blues – she made you believe the music was the blood running through her veins. A tall, hefty woman, she delivered full-bodied stories of despair and vivid lyrical descriptions of a world where misery was no stranger to the downtrodden. Sung with a voice as big as she was, her blues was profound […] Without question, she was the best and and most influential female blues artist of the 1920s, a decade that would become know as the “classic blues era” – Robert Santinelli
As part of the Blues Bump weekend (June 8-10, 2018), our friends in Montreal are producing a full cabaret blues dance show entitled “The Blues of Bessie Smith”. Inspired by the music of the Empress of the Blues, they’re presenting the beauty, history, and humanities of blues dance culture and music. The show is created in partnership with choreographers Randy Panté and Maryse Lebeau, performers from the “Hip Thrust to Victory” dance company, and costume designer Ariane Proteau.
“The Blues of Bessie Smith”, through a singular narrative, pays homage to the idea that the Blues, no matter how hard and personal, was meant to be shared and told to an audience. Within the intersection of despair and hope, love gained and love lost, fortuitous times and bad luck, join us in our journey through the story of the Blues.
We highly recommend you consider checking out both the Show and the remainder of the weekend!
Albertson, Chris. 2005. Bessie. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Davis, Angela Yvonne. 1999. Blues Legacies And Black Feminism. New York: Vintage Books.
Guralnick, Peter, Holly George-Warren, and Robert Santelli. 2014. Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues. HarperCollins e-Books.
Hazzard Gordon, Katrina. 1990. Jookin’. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Jones, LeRoi. 1974. Blues People. Stockholm: Raben & Sjögren.
Malone, Jacqui. 2006. Steppin’ On The Blues. Urbana [u.a.]: Univ. of Ill. Press.
Oakley, Giles. 1997. The Devil’s Music. New York: Da Capo Press.