There is a remarkable story tucked halfway through Bessie, Chris Albertson’s biography of the blues singer Bessie Smith, in which Smith approaches a circle of robed North Carolina Klansmen, places one hand on her hip, and begins shaking the other in the air. She hollers obscenities at the men—who were disassembling the tent her touring company had erected earlier that night, in a particularly childish bit of public dissension—until “they finally turned and disappeared quietly into the darkness.” This is the sort of tale that stinks of apocrypha (in 1927, lone black women did not escape such confrontations alive), but is nonetheless a useful encapsulation of Smith’s particular prowess: shouting darkness into darkness.
Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on April 15, 1894 (her birthday has never been properly verified, but this was listed at least on her marriage license), and grew up in a decrepit little cabin on Charles Street, in an impoverished, west-side neighborhood then known as Blue Goose Hollow. Smith’s father, a part-time laborer and Baptist preacher who oversaw a small mission, died when she was still an infant, and Smith lost her mother when she was just eight or nine. Smith’s oldest sister, Viola—a tough woman, who periodically trapped Bessie in the family outhouse for hideous overnight stretches—was left to care for all six kids. Smith started hustling early, singing and dancing on street corners while her older brother Andrew plucked a guitar. She shouted delightful things like “That’s right, Charlie, give to the Church!” whenever someone flipped a coin into her cup. Eventually, Smith auditioned for the Moses Stokes touring company, a raggedy vaudeville troupe, and began performing professionally in 1912. She worked alongside her older brother Clarence, a comedian and master of ceremonies for the company, and a blues singer named Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, who ultimately became a mentor.
In 1920, a Cincinnati-born vaudeville star named Mamie Smith sold more than 100,000 copies of “Crazy Blues,” a song she’d recorded for Okeh Records (it’s widely considered the first vocal blues recording by a black performer), and white executives were suddenly on the hunt for comparable talent doing comparable material. Smith auditioned for Columbia in the early 1920s. How she was brought to the label remains somewhat unclear (as Albertson tells it, the story’s only been sullied by time and “mythical embroidery”) but Frank Walker, who would eventually run Columbia’s race series—one of the first major imprints dedicated exclusively to recording and selling black artists to black fans—affords himself the most credit, claiming to have seen Smith sing at a “low-down dive” in Selma, Alabama, around 1917. Smith had since settled in the Northeast, performing at cabarets in Atlantic City and Philadelphia, and had taken up with a night watchman named Jack Gee, whom she would eventually marry. Gee accompanied her to New York for her first recording session (he pawned his uniform and pocket watch to help finance a new dress for the occasion), and the couple stayed at Gee’s mother’s house on 132nd Street in Harlem. Her first double-sided 78 rpm record—“Down Hearted Blues” / “Gulf Coast Blues”—was issued in 1923, and when Columbia decided to launch its race series later that year, executives chose Smith’s “Cemetery Blues” as its inaugural release.
Certainly, neither Smith nor Columbia Records can be held accountable for the segregated experience of art, but with the launch of commercial race records series (soon, most labels had established some version of the premise), that separation was institutionalized in a particularly odious way. “The racially segregationist distribution strategy of the recording industry implicitly instructed white ears to feel revolted by the blues and, moreover, to assume that this sense of revulsion was instinctive,” the scholar Angela Davis wrote in her book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism.
That aversion has since changed shape, become stranger, more veiled. Even now, nearly a century out, the way blues music gets written about by white scholars indicates a certain discomfiting distance, a kind of quasi-intuitive detachment that often manifests as a very peculiar type of hyperbole (a blind exaggeration of the music’s “rawness,” for example). Check out Frank Walker, in conversation with the producer George Avakian, explaining the first time he saw Smith sing: “I had never heard anything like the torture and torment she put into the music of her people,” he declared. That was the early narrative, the default presumption. Pain. Her people.
In the 21st century, if “the blues” has any face, it’s Robert Johnson’s, or, more typically, a Johnson-esque silhouette, dark and downtrodden: slumped, itinerant, devastated, male. He has usurped all the torture and torment, a fantastical incarnation of a fantasy. That, in the 1920s and ’30s, commercial artists like Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Bessie Smith were the dominant figures of the genre has become irrelevant to the myth of the blues as it’s been written by collectors and critics. Smith was phenomenally successful—a stout, outspoken black woman in a fur coat and pearls, stuffing theaters—and her success so directly contradicts a more romantic saga (the-blues-as-marginalized-cry) that she’s been nearly excised from its telling.
The conventional blues myth is a portrait of alienation that appeals, in some ways, to the types of folks who write those stories, either via the collection of rare 78 rpm records or the composition of essays and books (it is appealing to me, certainly, as a confirmation that loneliness and marginalization are excruciating things to feel, and that those feelings can be transmuted into something beautiful, even redemptive). It implies that the culture is not a meritocracy, and that genius is not always recognized in its time. It lionizes and martyrs the outlier, and incentivizes anguish.
It’s not Bessie Smith’s story, not really. She got what she wanted by working hard at it, finding new ways to profit from a cultivated skill. Which is not to imply that her work is artless—it’s not; often her delivery of a line feels truly unprecedented, as if she has just invented a new way to sing—only to point out that she is an astoundingly precise vocalist. Some of the notes she hits are so robust, so fixed and powerful, listening to them feels like walking directly into a sliding glass door. You are stunned and embarrassed, looking around to see who else saw. Her forcefulness just sneaks up like that.
In the 1920s, recorded music wasn’t considered an end in itself; performance was still the thing, what music was. The only extant moving footage of Bessie Smith performing is from the 1929 film St. Louis Blues, which, in sixteen minutes, tells the story of a woman, played by Smith, whose lover takes up with a younger, more glamorous girl. Early on, Smith is shown splayed across a wooden floor, pouring herself a shot of liquor from a glass bottle. She wears a hat. “My man, my man,” she sings. It’s hard to describe precisely what her voice is doing here, the heaviness of it: “My man’s got a heart like a rock cast in the sea.”
In his review for the New York Times, the critic Mordaunt Hall praised St. Louis Blues for being “effectively recorded,” but expressed other reservations: “It is … a sordid study in which there is a decided vein of vulgarity. It may be realism, but it is spoiled by being distasteful. The ‘blues’ are chanted as a result of a negress being deserted by her paramour, a light-footed, slick specimen. The negress is heard singing her mournful melody, first in a room after a drink of gin and subsequently at a bar in the cabaret.”
That melody, “St. Louis Blues,” was written in 1914 by W. C. Handy, the Memphis bandleader many consider the forefather of the blues, insomuch as such a figure can be appointed or verified. There are lots of beautiful parts, rhythmic and otherwise—Faulkner even pilfered the phrase “That evening sun” (“I hate to see that evenin’ sun go down / ’Cause my baby, he done left this town”), using it to title a short story in 1931—but those first few seconds are uncommonly harrowing. Handy would later say he overheard the opening line, the one Smith sings a capella on the floor with her head slumped to the side, on a St. Louis street corner, mumbled by a woman mourning her husband’s departure. It’s a devastating lyric. It takes a minute. The first implication—that his heart is heavy, sinking—is too optimistic. It’s that his heart is lost. She lost it.
What I’m saying is that it’s worth doing, watching that scene: there’s something that passes over Smith’s face the second time she sings it, when her voice jumps an octave on the word “man.” It’s a kind of resignation—not a miming of agony, not the broad evocation of some grand, emotional collapse. It’s a smaller kind of dying, and truer to the way heartbreak feels. After you’ve cried and hollered and tossed some stuff in the trash and kicked the bag of trash down the street, you are quiet, your face goes slack. Smith knew what it meant to lose someone. You’ll see it in the way her eyes glance upward. “My man.”
Now, St. Louis Blues is the closest anyone can get to knowing what it was like to see Bessie Smith perform, and we should be grateful it’s around at all. “There was a time when it was believed that only one print existed,” Chris Albertson told me. “The NAACP tried to have it destroyed, finding the content to be stereotypical and demeaning.” I’d written him, wanting to know more about Smith than what was caught on her records—something about the way she moved. “One thing everybody seemed to agree on was that her movements were sensuous, slow and subtle,” he said. “When Linda Hopkins portrayed her in a Broadway show called Me and Bessie, she got it all wrong. I took Alberta Hunter to see it and she said, ‘Oh, my God, that woman needs to stop!’ Bessie, she said, did it all with a slight shift of her hips, a raised eyebrow. [The jazz musicians] Danny Barker and Zutty Singleton called her slow performances mesmerizing—it was like being in church, Danny told me.”
All of Smith’s work is imbued with what gets called “feeling,” in a lexical failing of grand proportions, but it is not especially overcome by it, and her vocals never slip into the wildness typically associated with pre-war country-blues performers like Charley Patton and Skip James, both masters of the careening, imperfect keen. The aesthetic differences between these two strains of the blues are inarguable. Bessie Smith didn’t have time for that street-corner shit. She’d transcended it. So much of her strength was in her control, her professionalism, itself a product of the endless competitions and antagonisms of the chorus line. “I ain’t gonna play no second fiddle / ’Cause I’m used to playing lead,” she sang in 1925.
There is also the matter of her material legacy. Her records have been comprehensively reissued and now occupy rack space near the checkout lines of mega-bookstores, alongside the boxed chocolates and mini book-lights and compendiums of wisdom from dogs; unlike, say, Geeshie Wiley or Mattie Delaney, outlier blueswomen whose extant 78 rpm records hover in the three-known-copies realm, Smith’s 160 sides were widely distributed and have never been under threat of loss. There is periodic speculation that Smith recorded for the Emerson Record Company before 1923—a tiny entertainment item in a 1921 issue of The Chicago Defender errantly suggests as much—but those records have never been found, and were likely never recorded. She is not a specter, underappreciated and awaiting detection by some enterprising crate-digger. She is canonical, understood.
There is also something familiar, to modern ears, about the way Smith sings, the undulations and cadences of her delivery, her particular system of breath. Insomuch as anyone turns to old records for a sense of discovery, to hear some essential humanity articulated in an exotic or alien way—and here, both Wiley and Delaney offer their seekers many unnameable pleasures—the technicality of Smith’s performances feels intuitive, almost rote. What I suspect is happening is that Smith’s vocal style has been aped and assumed by so many female pop singers in the 76 years since her death that it’s now just presumed, a kind of default mode of expression, shorthand for a certain type of emoting: this is the way women sing, the big, burly notes, the gentle swing, the trembling melisma. The idea that Smith was crucial to its development, that no one sang like this before her, has gotten lost.
Her ingenuity is arguably best expressed on “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” a blues standard published by Jimmy Cox in 1923 and popularized by Smith in 1929 (it was released, somewhat serendipitously, just weeks before the Wall Street crash that incited the Great Depression: “So, if I ever get my hands on a dollar again, I’m gonna hold on to it ’til them eagles grin / Nobody knows you when you’re down and out,” it presages). About two minutes into Smith’s version, the trumpeter Ed Allen completes a particularly mournful solo, and Smith heaves back into the chorus with a hum: “Hmmmmm … Mmmmmm … When you’re down and out,” she sings. It’s one of the smartest, most effective nonverbal communicators I’ve ever heard employed in a pop song, and I think of it every time Mariah Carey launches into one of her infamous runs, or anyone closes their eyes and gives up on lyrics. What goes unspoken is what lingers the longest and hurts the most.
Were Smith to reappear in late 2013 and listen to a couple minutes of pop radio, I bet hearing the thick and craven moans of Christina Aguilera or Beyonce or Lady Gaga would feel a little bit like gazing directly into a funhouse mirror. Those vocal cartwheels, that particular kind of feminine bravado, now exaggerated and however many generations removed (in the 1960s, Janis Joplin told friends she believed she was “Bessie Smith reincarnated,” and freely admitted that she learned to sing by listening to Smith’s records)—that’s Bessie.
I bet she would get real mad and tell them all to fuck off. To stop pinching her style.
Almost immediately, Smith’s records were big sellers (it’s been said she helped bring Columbia out of bankruptcy), and she eventually became the highest-paid African-American entertainer of her time. People—both black and white—wanted to hear her sing, and they wanted her 78s to take home and play in their parlors at night. She did something special for black audiences. Smith’s songs “helped to forge for northern African-Americans a collective consciousness rooted in memories of the South but rearticulated,” Angela Davis writes. “The forging of this consciousness was critically important as a buffer against the often traumatizing effects of the migration northward.”
What I imagine displaced Southern blacks heard on Smith’s records in the 1920s—some sliver of home, some essential Southernness, the suggestion that assimilation might not also require a total relinquishment of self—is not so dissimilar to what I hear, which is a woman singing about being exactly who she is, and not giving a shit if anyone else likes it. The fear of being in a place that is not your place, is not where you come from, can incite a deep existential rattling. Which often leads to a disingenuous reinvention: a bending of your own rules, a fudging that ultimately makes you lonelier.
There is something about the way Smith occupies space that indicates a preternatural-seeming confidence. She didn’t concede to place, or to the mores of the day; she didn’t yield to anything. If Smith was born into hard circumstances, if she endured unspeakable suffering, if she was fundamentally misplaced or mistreated in some way, she appropriated those scars in a way that reads as strength. I don’t hear sadness or regret in her voice. Instead, there is a sureness of footing. She is frank about who she is and the context she was born into and the ways in which she has both escaped and not escaped. As Davis points out, Smith directly addressed “the circumstances of black women’s lives: work, jail, physical abuse inflicted by male partners, and other injustices” in her songs; Davis also contends that Smith’s “blues attitude foreshadowed the later development of feminist consciousness during the late 1960s and early 1970s.”
“Feminist consciousness” is a complicated thing to define (and especially to pre-date), but Smith’s embrace of impertinence certainly challenged long-ingrained constructs of femininity. Her song titles indicate a familiarity with certain vices—“Me and My Gin,” “Careless Love Blues,” “Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer,” “Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl,” “’Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do”—and she indulged them when and however she saw fit, with little regard paid to mediating those desires.
Her wants were specific, and they were met. Even after Prohibition ended she preferred moonshine of any sort to its store-bought analogues, and insisted “anything sealed” made her sick. Her niece Ruby, a chorus girl in her show, told Albertson that Smith goaded her whole company into sipping “bad liquor,” preferably procured in Atlanta from “a man who lived under the viaduct, near the boardinghouse where we stayed.” She had to have it by the half-gallon, ladled into a jug. Her dancers called it “Walk a block and fall.” There were other indulgences. In the spring of 1925, she holed up for a few days in a Harlem hotel room with a musician who worked under the bandleader Fletcher Henderson; by way of explaining her extended absence to Gee, she pretended she’d been hit by a car and taken in by strangers. To sell the story, she heaved herself down the flight of stairs connecting the first floor of the hotel to the lobby. Smith also maintained sexual relationships with several of her chorus girls, and frequented “buffet flats,” which, according to Albertson, were private houses hosting “erotic shows that featured sex acts of every conceivable kind” and empty rooms where patrons could freely reenact what they saw. (Albertson notes here that Smith was particularly intrigued by “an obese woman who performed an amazing trick with a lighted cigarette.”) Gee was not a faithful partner either, and Smith often became enraged when she suspected him of some indiscretion (one time she chased him around her private railroad car, unloading all the bullets from her gun and hollering “Come out, you motherless bastard!”). In a conversation with Albertson, her former chorine Bucher Swan recounts a story that ends with Smith hurling a chair across the New Star Casino, a dance hall on 107th Street in Harlem. “It took three strong men to get her out of there—she was a powerful woman and she could cuss worse than a sailor,” Swan said.
Reading Smith’s tour stories—high-order sexual debauchery and bouts of violence, fueled by the consumption of gallons of dubious liquor—reveals a decadence not so dissimilar from the depraved antics joyfully described in Mötley Crüe’s The Dirt. If it is said that the British rock & roll bands of the late 1960s borrowed generously from the musical traditions of American blues singers, let it also be said that they approximated Bessie Smith’s fondness for impiety while out on the road.
Between 1925 and 1935, Smith continued touring for Columbia. But between the pangs of the Depression and Northerners’ growing disinterest in Southern blues music (and their burgeoning interest in swing), her career was winding down.
In the fall of 1937, Smith took a gig with a touring company—she’d landed a feature role in Winsted’s Broadway Rastus, a roving minstrel show. By all accounts the company had been doing “good business” in Memphis, and the first road date was set for Sunday, September 26th in Darling, Mississippi. By then, she and Gee were estranged but not divorced, and Smith had taken up with a man named Richard Morgan, whom many considered her common law husband. That Saturday night, Smith became agitated, and demanded Morgan drive her the 75 miles south from Memphis to Clarksdale, so that she would arrive in Mississippi in advance of the rest of the cast. He rebuked her, later admitting that he wanted to stay and play cards; she threatened to find another driver. I imagine it was one of those late-night arguments between couples: endless, exhausting, irrational on all sides. You start wanting to win more than you want the thing you’re arguing for. Around 1 A.M., they pulled out of Memphis in Smith’s old wooden-roofed Packard sedan. An hour or so later, Morgan drove the Packard into the back of a parked or very slow-moving National Biscuit Company truck on the east side of Highway 61.
Smith was catapulted from the car. Moments later, Dr. Hugh Smith, an intern at the Campbell Clinic in Memphis, and his friend Henry Broughton—who were gearing up for a couple of hours of predawn fishing at a nearby Mississippi lake, their tackle stowed neatly in the back of Dr. Smith’s Chevrolet—came upon a frantic Richard Morgan, who was flapping at them wildly from the median. According to Dr. Smith’s report, the whole scene was “a horrible mess.” In addition to other injuries, Bessie Smith’s forearm had been torn loose from her upper arm at the elbow. The three connecting nerves remained intact, “lying there like telephone wires,” Dr. Smith later said. Broughton ran to a nearby home and called for a colored ambulance, which did not arrive quickly. Dr. Smith was clearing the backseat of the Chevrolet to drive Smith to the hospital himself when another car carrying a young white couple came barreling down the road at around 50 miles per hour, slammed into the Chevrolet, slammed into the Packard, slammed into a ditch. Now there were three bodies splayed on the side of the road: the couple, and Smith’s. Eventually, ambulances arrived; Smith was taken directly to G. T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital in Clarksdale.
For decades, tales about Smith having been refused care at a white hospital—delays that ultimately resulted in her death—persisted, but according to Albertson’s biography, those stories are unfounded. Bessie Smith was declared dead at 11:30 on Sunday morning. “We gave her every medical attention, but we were never able to rally her back from the shock,” Dr. W. H. Brandon, the physician who signed her death certificate, wrote to the folklorist John Lomax in 1941.
Smith’s relationship to the story of the blues has only gotten more complicated in the decades after her death, when a blues revival led, in part, by 78 rpm record collectors saw to the escorting out and feting of many of her rural, acoustic brethren. Around then, it all started to feel overwhelmingly male. (And intellectually insular: the rural blues as a grand, countercultural statement.) Smith’s influence on contemporary pop is even more muddled. In the great untangling of American song, it often becomes hard to know whose thread is whose.
A funeral was held in Philadelphia on October 4. Around 7,000 mourners swarmed the auditorium of the O. V. Catto Elks Lodge at Sixteenth and Fitzwater Streets, pressing through police lines, pawing at her coffin. Smith was buried in an unmarked grave at Mount Lawn Cemetery (33 years later, Janis Joplin and Juanita Green, Smith’s old housekeeper, finally purchased and saw to the erection of a proper monument). According to The Philadelphia Tribune, “The casket slid down into the grave. A woman screamed.”
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