Bessie Smith: The Empress of Blues

Introduction to Blues

The Great Migration had a huge influence on the many evolutions of blues. As Black people transitioned from the South to the North, there was a new music sound that took over the Black community. The beginnings of blues, along with all other forms of African American music, can be traced back to the era of the slave trade starting in 1619. The basic blues melodies were most derived from several traditional spirituals. Many of these blues elements, such as the call-and-response format, can be traced back to the music of Africa. Like most forms of popular music, African-American blues lyrics mainly talk about love and life experiences. Though there were many women pioneers in the blues genre, Bessie Smith was one of the most influential blues singers. She is indeed the Empress of Blues. 

Bessie's Upbringing

Bessie Smith began to sing at a young age. She soon became one of the highest paid Black performers of her time. She is most famous for her hits such and  “Downhearted Blues” and “Gimmie a Pigfoot.” By the end of the 1920s, she performed and made new recordings at the start of the Swing Era. Smith grew up in poverty and obscurity. In 1913, she toured in a show with Ma Rainey, a pioneer of blues singers. She also collaborated with the legendary jazz artist, Louis Armstrong on several songs. 

Music Career

In February 1923, Smith made her first recordings, including the classic “Down Hearted Blues,” which sold more than two million copies. She made 160 recordings in all, in many of which she collaborated with some of the greatest jazz musicians of time. Though Bessie Smith’s recording career lasted only 10 years, she created music that helped shape the sound of the 20th century. Through the 1920s, Bessie Smith became one of the earliest stars of recorded music and a leading figure of the classic blues genre. She often times wrote songs that were easily relatable. Her song topics included experiences of poverty, racism, sexism and the hardships of love. 

Bessie's Legacy

Since her death, Bessie Smith’s music continues to resonate with younger and older audiences. She has been a primary influence for countless female singers including Billie Holliday and Aretha Franklin. Bessie Smith was much more than just a blues singer. She was an icon for her race. Recently, Queen Latifah played a role as Bessie Smith in a biopic on the life of the legendary blues singer. 

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