“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.”
Langston Hughes said she was
“not softened with tears, but hardened with laughter, the absurd, incongruous laughter of a sadness without even a god to appeal to.”
James Baldwin, writing his first novel, “Go Tell it on the Mountain” (1953), in Switzerland, played his two Bessie Smith records over and over again:
“It was Bessie Smith, through her tone and her cadence, who helped me dig back to the way I myself must have spoken.”
Thomas Edison, the inventor of recorded music, rated her NG for “no good”.
Most Whites did not know who she was or cared for her music. Middle-class Blacks, therefore, as a rule, did not like her music either. But tons of ordinary Black people did, getting together a dollar so they could buy her record from the Pullman porters who sold it from trains going through the South.
She never sang for White audiences. That meant she never had to change her music to appeal to them.
She was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, one of seven children of a poor Baptist preacher. As a young teenager she left home to join a travelling show as a dancer, later becoming a singer.
By the First World War she had her own travelling show, the Liberty Belles. Audiences loved it, but theatre managers did not, presumably because her dancers were not thin enough and light-skinned enough and were too raucous.
After “Crazy Blues” (1920) by Mamie Smith (no relation) became a hit among Blacks, the “race record” was born. White record companies started looking for Black singers. But they all passed on Bessie Smith: her voice was too “rough”, her accent too Southern, her personality too crude. But one record company, which was going broke, took a chance on her: Columbia Records. They paid her $125 for recording “Downhearted Blues” (1923) – and made $750,000 in the first six months the record was out! In time she became rich too, making 150 recordings for Columbia.
In 1925, she recorded “St Louis Blues” with Louis Armstrong, arguably her best song.
Some say she and blues legend Ma Rainey were lovers.
In 1937, on the road from Memphis, she got in a car accident in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Some say she bled to death because the nearby White hospital would not take her. She died at a Black hospital, which later became the Riverside Hotel where Ike Turner wrote “Rocket 88” (1951), the first rock and roll song.
Ten thousand came to her funeral. She was buried at Mount Lawn Cemetery in Philadelphia. It was not till 1970 that a tombstone was put up – by Juanita Green and Janis Joplin.
– Abagond, 2016.
Sources: Mainly “The African-American Century” (2000) by Henry Louis Gates, Jr and Cornel West; “Black Intellectuals, Black Cognition, and a Black Aesthetic” (1997) by W.D. Wright; Contemporary Black Biography (1993); “Blues People” (1963) by LeRoi Jones.
- Welcome to Black Women’s History Month
- 1927: Backwater Blues
- Langston Hughes: The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain
- James Baldwin
- Josephine Baker
- Billie Holiday
- Monterey Pop Festival – Janis Joplin
- R&B: a brief history: 1975-1979