Empress of Blues: Bessie Smith

Blues: the genre of pain and sorrow. There literally could not have been another name that was more fitting for this genre, especially when we take a look at the personal lives of the most famous and popular blues singers. They were often going through serious economic, political and social trials and were using their voices and instruments to express their pain (when they weren’t drinking terrifying amounts of alcohol). Along with experiencing trauma, other requirements in order to truly be a blues singer was repetition of the lyrics, moaning  and a major solo throughout the song with some instrumental accompaniment. One of the most popular but controversial Blues singers was Bessie Smith, truly exemplifying what the Deep South had to bring to the table when it came to this genre.

Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on April 15, 1894, Bessie Smith endured many struggles and hardships at a young age. Her mother, father and brother had all died by the time she was 9 years old, resulting in her older sister, Viola, to take care of her and her remaining siblings. She was unable to attend school and they lived in extreme poverty, when her oldest brother, Clarence, left home to join a small traveling troupe. Bessie sang and danced with her brother before he left, performing on street corners, and was too young to go touring with him even though he admitted she was more than ready.

In 1912, Clarence returned to Chattanooga with the Stokes Troupe and arranged for Bessie to audition with the Stokes Troupe managers, Lonnie and Cora Fisher. Bessie was then hired as a dancer rather than a vocalist because the company already had that spot filled by the popular singer, Ma Rainey. It was there that Ma Rainey taught Bessie how to have stage presence, and she began to perform in chorus lines as well as in shows like Atlanta’s “81” Theater.

By 1920, Bessie had established her reputation and began her recording career in 1923. She was signed to Columbia Records and released her first records, “Cemetery Blues”, “Downhearted Blues” and “Gulf Coast Blues”. She rose to the top as she became the highest-paid Black entertainer during the 20s and started traveling in her own 72 foot long railroad car.

Although she was quite popular, she did bring up controversial conversations. She was looked at as too rough and was dismissed in certain areas, for example when she auditioned for Black Swan Records but stopped singing to spit. She was claimed to be coarser than Mamie Smith, as she had a very strong contralto voice. She also identified as bisexual and had numerous female sex partners (even during her marriage, which ended in 1929).

On September 26, 1937, while her lover, Richard Morgan was driving, Bessie was involved in a car crash between Memphis and Clarksdale. As the doctor arrived to the scene, Bessie, who was already severely injured, was struck again by another oncoming car. Due to the racial climate during that time, it is rumored that her death could’ve been avoided if the whites-only hospital in Clarksdale would’ve admitted her sooner. She had to get her right arm amputated and died that next morning. Her death was a shock to the world and her funeral which was held in Philadelphia was attended by 7,000 people. 

Although her life was tremendously troubled and hard in the beginning, she eventually began to live the life she always dreamed of. Positive outcomes doesn’t really fit the description of a blues singer, but her strong voice and painful lyrics seeped into the hearts of so many, making her popularity inevitable. Her legacy and talent will forever live on through the influence and music of blues and other genres that portray the troubles of life, specifically connecting to today’s economic, political and social climate. 

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