Blues is an important part of African-American music because it provided an outlet for unapologetic expressions and a way to define the humanity stripped from them due to enslavement in a post-slave era.
Blues music is a genre that allows artists to express their emotions, specifically their sadness. Blues quickly became popular in Black America because it made room for Black expression and space for women. More specifically, the Black women in blues completely transformed blues and made history. There is no denying the impact of trailblazers such as Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Etta James, Ma Rainey, Memphis Minnie, Sister Rosetta Thorpe, and many more. The mother of all women in Blues music is undoubtedly Bessie Smith. Tennessee born Bessie Smith earned her title as the “Empress of the Blues” after rising to fame in the 1920s for her hit “St. Louis Blues” (1925). Smith distinguished herself as a blues artist because her music promoted Black female sexuality, the reclamation of the body, and a sense of unapologetic authenticity to self.
Smith was a liberating symbol to represent the Black American woman. Black women’s voices and expressions were further silenced and suppressed back in Bessie’s time. Smith’s role in blue’s music increased Black women’s accessibility to music and ultimately empowered Black women nationwide. Smith used her platform to control her body in a society that attaches strings to Black women’s bodies and expects them to play puppets on America’s stage. In the early 20th century, Black women were alienated from womanhood and humanity since society supported dehumanizing ideas about Black women.
Smith’s songs gave people a glimpse into the lens of Black women’s experiences, like in “Washwoman Blues” (1928). Smith took on a bold, expressive, proud, powerful approach centered around Black women’s identity in her music. Smith was a significant influence on artists like Norah Jones and Mahalia Jackson and plenty more today. Bessie’s music was played all across America and Black Americans, in particular, accredited Bessie as a music mogul. Furthermore, Smith proves how expression through art can create change. Smith’s story and legacy are the perfect examples of why representation matters and how art forms that allow for genuine expressions, like blues, are essential.
Bessie Smith is an essential figure in music because she broke through glass ceilings and forced a space for Black women in music. One of the essential things Smith did was reclaim and take control of her body. Smith was a symbol of empowerment for Black women, and she strengthened Black America by gaining power from her body, like in her song “Empty Bed Blues (Parts 1 and 2)” (1928). When Bessie was coming up, not many Black women were as unapologetic, censored, and authentic to all aspects of their identity. Smith expressed her perception of self in her music that encouraged Black women to be fearless and embrace their womanhood. Mahalia Jackson, Norah Jones, and even Solange Knowles are just a few of the many women inspired by the blueprint provided by Bessie Smith.
A notable aspect of Bessie Smith is how she draws in an audience with her soulful voice and conveys emotion. Smith grew up as a poor, Black woman in America, which is the most neglected, yet, influential person in America. Her music is a reflection of her life with a surprising twist. Smith flipped the narrative and portrayed herself as a powerful, fearless Black that persuaded her listeners to realize Black women’s importance. Black women resonated with Smith’s message, therefore creating representation for Black women and serving as an image of freedom. Smith was so successful because she was revolutionary. Blues was a genre solely to express how an artist feels, and Smith took advantage of blues to tell how she feels being Black in America. Smith was able to demonstrate Black women’s experience through Blues.
Blues played an important part in music as it forced artists to be the most vulnerable and authentic they’ve ever been. Blues brought out raw emotions in African-Americans like never before.
A 1924 photo of blues singer Bessie Smith.
“About Bessie Smith.” Bessie Smith Cultural Center, www.bessiesmithcc.org/about/about-bessie-smith-2/.
“Extravagant Crowd: Bessie Smith.” Extravagant Crowd | Bessie Smith, brbl-archive.library.yale.edu/exhibitions/cvvpw/gallery/smith1.html. “Smith, Bessie.” National Women’s Hall of Fame, www.womenofthehall.org/inductee/bessie-smith/.