I am always interested in transitory events whether they be political, biographical, or musical. The emergence of the blues as first a song form and eventually an art form is one of the most fascinating and simplest.
Think of the state of the American song in the late 19th century. Stephen Foster, born in 1826 wrote some of the most popular, deriving from European influences but setting a uniquely American tone. Songs like “Camptown Races,” “I Dream of Jeannie (With the Light Brown Hair),” and “Old Folks at Home” (also called “Swanee River”), are indelibly etched into the American art psyche.
Foster also attempted, with some success, the minstrel form with songs like “Old Black Joe” and “Massa’s in De Cold Cold Ground” but he was more popular for his light-hearted pop songs. But, despite their popularity Foster was not a smart businessman. In 1848 he sold “Oh! Susanna” for $100 and the publisher made $10,000. By 1857 Foster was experiencing financial difficulties, so regardless of his songs’ popularity he sold the future rights to all his songs for $1900 and proceeded to drink himself to an early death in 1864.
But my point is these songs were light and airy ditties that live in American lore and continually pop back into recording culture but hardly can be considered revolutionary. It was the introduction of the rhythms and tragedy of the African American slaves that boiled over and gave rise to a new style of expression that Ma Rainey first heard from that local girl at a tent show and labeled ‘the Blues’. This form was as different from “Camptown Races” as cherry pie from mud. And man was it dirty.
We went over Bessie’s life in part 1 of this essay and saw how she and Ma Rainey embraced this form and incorporated it into what can only be termed their acts. These women, and especially Smith, were not primarily singers.
Bessie Smith was first known as a performer. By the early 1920’s Bessie with Frank Walker was producing and traveling with lavish shows using vaudeville routines and minstrel songs to entertain white and black audiences with dancing girls, bawdy comedic skits, and the blues tunes. She traveled the country from coast to coast with a troupe of characters, primarily in the South and Southwest where her brand of theater was most appreciated. She recorded in New York and Chicago as well as performing there but when she hit the road, she would kick it off in places like Atlanta.
The blues is what she is known for today despite her talent for entertaining audiences with her raucous behavior on stage she could sing the shit out of a blues song. By 1925 she had begun recording with Fletcher Henderson who ten years later would be instrumental in developing the Big Band Swing style first with his own orchestra and eventually with Benny Goodman. In January 1925 Henderson introduced Frank Walker to his 23-year-old cornet player, Louis Armstrong.
Walker hired Armstrong for a series of recordings at a session in New York. This was one of just a handful of sessions these two giants recorded together but the influence Smith had on Armstrong cannot be overstated. Here was a major flash point in blues and jazz history.
Armstrong in a 1952 interview called her “the madam of the Blues” and talked about that first session as one of his favorites of all his many. “It was wonderful how she’d stand there all day and make the blues, and give them titles. It’s a wonderful thing you know. We’d meet about nine o’clock in the morning and when she’d finish a blues I’d say ‘What’s that one Bessie?’ and they were all different and pretty. So you know she was a creator.”
That session stands out as a watershed moment in jazz history. Several iconic songs were recorded including “St. Louis Blues” which Armstrong would use in his repertoire for the rest of his career. The combination of Bessie’s power and Louis’s sharp cornet soloing produced a model sound that became imitated for decades.
The last recording from this session was Armstrong’s favorite, and is considered a classic in traditional jazz repertoire. “You’ve Been a Good Ole Wagon” shows off Bessie’s ability to wring soul from a ballad about sending her man out to graze, and Louis’s muted cornet not only evokes and sways with Bessie’s wail but shows a humor that would forever be a part of his style.
Bessie Smith came by this humor and tragedy very naturally. Her personal life was a gas to research. I wish I could have partied with that gal. Having been brought up in the South she had developed a taste for corn liquor or moonshine, and no matter how much money she made she would never touch store bought liquor and claimed it made her sick. She was such a strong personality she wouldn’t allow her drinking partners to touch anything but this bathtub gin as long as she was paying.
She’d stay out all night and sometimes would disappear for days. She was married to a bounder named Jack Gee during her heyday who discouraged her drinking so when he wasn’t along for the tent tours Bessie would cut loose, sleeping with men and women from her show and shacking up in hotels for days with various crew members. Jack caught her a few times and the fights were glorious. The girl could handle herself and few men or women could back her down.
Because of Jim Crow laws throughout the North and South there were few places where African Americans could party legally, especially in the rural hamlets that were used by the Theater Owners Bookings Association, or TOBA, that booked African American acts around the country. What naturally sprang up were party houses, often abandoned houses in very rural areas, where local blacks could congregate, drink, carouse, and play music, with little interference from the officers of the law.
Bessie knew all of them, and would frequent these crazy houses with mostly female crew members. Her niece Ruby, who traveled and performed with the troupe, remembers a story of such a house in rural Georgia during a tour.
Bessie had heard there was a party going on in this house and she got her gals together to blow off some steam. They got all dressed up and walked out to where the house was. It was a country place and surrounded by mud so the girls got their clothes messed up going out there. But when they arrived the atmosphere was one to Bessie’s liking. There was a band in the living room playing up a storm, folks of all types dancing and hollering, going in and out of rooms upstairs, and in the kitchen was a big pot of collard greens. Bessie grabbed a plate of greens, a glass of moonshine to wash it down, and sat down at the kitchen table to eat.
The girls were not as fond of the surroundings and cowered in the corner of the kitchen watching the proceedings with wide-eyed dread. They were there only because when Bessie wanted to party and said you were going, you were going. A drunk came into the kitchen and tried to get Ruby to dance with him. Ruby was frightened, and declined. The drunk got ugly and started to push Ruby into the living room.
Without a word Bessie got up from the table and cold cocked the guy, then sat down to finish her supper. Some friends of the drunk dragged him off. The guy was yelling about revenge but was too scared of Smith to really follow it up. Ruby recounts they spent most of the night at the party.
As they left toward morning the idiot drunk appeared from behind a tree, yelling and waving a gun. Bessie walked right up to him, grabbed his arm, and took the gun away from him. The clown took off but Bessie took off her high heels and chased the guy through the mud, shooting the gun into the air and screaming laughter. Atta girl.
Smith was doing well enough by 1925 to have a railroad car built that could house her troupe as well as store the show’s equipment. She was understandably proud of this and all her accomplishments and when she was doing well she gave lavish gifts to her friends and especially her husband. Jack Gee was an untalented cad who claimed to be producing her shows, but the shows were in fact managed by Bessie’s brother Clarence. But often she would feel guilty about her extracurricular activities and spend money on Jack for jewelry, clothes, and cars. There’s a great story that Bessie would retell about a car dealership in Chicago.
Jack and Bessie were walking down a sidewalk when Jack’s eye was caught by a unique new Cadillac convertible in a showroom. Bessie resolved to buy the car for Jack and went inside.
The white salesman scurried over with the obvious intention to get these two out of the showroom before anyway saw them.
“Ma’am, let me show you some different cars outside, less expensive cars.”
Bessie. “No I want that one.”
She was insistent until the exasperated salesman finally said “Well it’ll cost you $5000.”
Bessie drew up her skirt where she kept a carpenter’s apron full of cash and pulled out a fistful of money. She loved this story as an obvious triumph over white attitudes towards even well-known African Americans.
Sadly the marriage wouldn’t last, and as Bessie’s career started to decline towards 1929 they split up and Bessie had to sell that railroad car. The early 30’s were lean years for Bessie as tastes changed, and the advent of ‘talking’ pictures made the traveling show an anachronism.
She experienced a revival with the boom of Swing in 1935-1936 and Smith’s popularity returned as she could swing with the best of them. But on the morning of September 26, 1937 she was traveling in an automobile with her lover Richard Morgan and an accident took her life. It was estimated that 10,000 fans attended the funeral of the Empress of the Blues and the largest selling recording artist of her day.
Here’s a treat. This is a video a guy made featuring his 1925 Victrola playing a copy of Bessie’s last recording “Gimme a Pigfoot.” A lady to the end.
A lot of the material for this article came from the excellent and definitive biography of Bessie Smith, Bessie by Chris Albertson. Highly recommend.