Bessie Smith Part 1

Written by WL Woodward

The Lord was walking through the Garden. He was knitting what would one day be known as a Rubik’s Cube when He came across Adam and Eve. Both of them were covering their private parts with leaves and stuff.

“Good morning my children. Who said you were naked? Wait..I know this one… “

The Lord bowed His head and Eve became pregnant. The Lord knew the Devil was the problem but Eve was standing next to Him…so Ka-Blam-O.

The birth of the Blues. Why me.

For a few columns I’ve been talking about the early blues influences but so far they have been guys with guitars playing in the fields of the southern deltas. I tried to trace paths back from early blues recordings into the days that spawned minstrel shows and vaudeville to smell into how this idiom developed.

In the early 1800’s weekend plantation entertainment allowed by slave owners and practiced by slaves started showing up around the Southern plantations. At the corner of Orleans and Rampart in New Orleans, in what came to be known as Congo Square, there was a field that on weekend nights turned into a gathering of slaves cutting loose with music and dance, religious chants, and drumming. This gathering of souls became a tourist attraction of sorts. Not that the white population understood any of it, but at the very least the practice was condoned as a way to let these poor people let off steam.

The tourist attraction of these events was not lost on white entrepreneurs and by the 1840’s that uniquely American spectacle called minstrel shows began to appear. Exclusively performed by white actors in blackface, these shows toured the country with song and comedy routines designed for white audiences and portrayed the blacks as bumpkins and idiots to be laughed at and derided. The minstrel shows robbed black creativity and solidified derisive stereotypes that persisted for another 150 years.

In 1885 two white Boston businessmen took the minstrel concept and evolved shows into what they called Vaudeville. Benjamin Keith and Edward Albee initiated productions that when in town could provide “wholesome family fun” all day and into the night that one could attend as long as he wanted for two bits. By the mid 1890’s the vaudeville circuit had exploded across America with grand productions in major theaters and became a major entertainment force.

At this time the white producers of these touring extravaganzas began bringing on black performers, realizing they could exploit not only the entertainment spawned by black minstrels but could pay them less than their white counterparts. Much less.

As shameful a period in American history as this all represents, the practice of hiring black performers began freeing some from the suffocating abject poverty that kept families nailed to impoverished shacks in the poorest parts of towns and cities and relegated to doing white folks’ laundry and cleaning their houses. Black touring companies working on shoestring budgets with cardboard sets and raggedy costumes sprang up all over the country and now gave black audiences an escape from the drudgery of their lives and even in the poor condition of the show the semblance of glamor held out a hope that maybe another life was possible.

Into this stew was born Bessie Smith, somewhere late in the 1890’s. Birth certificates weren’t issued to African-Americans at that time since their social status was just above that of pets. By estimate Bessie was born about 1897 in Chattanooga (one of my favorite city names) to William and Laura Smith as one of 8 children. Bessie herself later described the shack where they lived in Blue Goose Hollow as ‘tight quarters for two adults, let alone 2 adults and 8 children.”

Bessie’s parents passed away when she was young, and the oldest girl, Viola, had to take on the burden of raising the family. Viola became a hard, embittered woman who treated the kids very strictly as possibly punishment for her lot in life. One of Bessie’s stories from that period talked of her being locked up in the family outhouse all night whenever she misbehaved.

Naturally escape from this poverty and oppression became a dream for these kids, especially Bessie and her older brother Clarence. Clarence worked as a handyman but dreamed of becoming a performer in a touring company. Bessie and her younger brother Andrew began street performing, singing and dancing for pennies. Bessie was remembered by neighbors as having more talent as a performer, dancing and clowning, than for her singing ability. But this was around 1905 and the art of blues singing was just developing.

In 1911 Clarence got an opportunity and he escaped. Without telling Viola, and more importantly Bessie, Clarence jumped through the night and joined a traveling troupe as a comedian and master of ceremonies. Viola was enraged because he provided income for the family. But Bessie was heart-broken because she worshipped her older brother and thought they’d leave together. But after all, Bessie was only 14.

However Clarence returned to Chattanooga a year later with the Stokes Company. He convinced The Stokes to audition Bessie and they hired the now 15 year old as a dancer. Bye bye Viola and Chattanooga.

Included in the Stokes company was a dancing and singing duo, Will and Gertrude Rainey. Gertrude Rainey was 10 years older than Bessie, and she took a liking to the young dancer and what developed was a mother/daughter relationship that would last for the remainder of Bessie’s life.

Most importantly, Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey was an influential pioneer of the blues idiom. In 1902 Rainey was a young performer in a tent show and a young girl from town came to sing using a style she had never heard before. The girl sang about a ‘man who had left her’ and Rainey was enthralled. She learned the song from the visitor and incorporated it into her act.

Audiences loved the song and the style Ma used. She was asked what kind of song it was and one day she replied “It’s the Blues.” Ma didn’t invent the style, but she has been credited with naming it.

Many stories revolve around the relationship between Ma and Bessie, some claiming Ma taught Bessie how to sing, and one incredible yarn where it was rumored Ma had Bessie kidnapped and brought to her to teach. Both women disclaimed the kidnapping rumor, considering it pretty hilarious but entirely untrue. Also false was any vocal training Ma Rainey may have given Bessie. Ma certainly taught Bessie the wiles and ways of surviving the show circuit, as any ‘mother’ would. But by the time Bessie had spent a few months with the troupe, she had heard enough of Ma’s songs and had built her own style that in 1913 Bessie was on her own and playing the ‘81’ club in Atlanta. By 1914, at the age of 17, she was a star.

Smith spent the next years traveling the circuit and by 1918 had her own band and started appearing as a headliner. She tried to get in on the fledgling recording action that was developing by 1920. ‘Race’ records were becoming popular with both white and black audiences, and there are some references to Bessie recording for Columbia as early as 1921. But if those sessions happened, the recordings were lost. But in 1923 a producer named Frank Walker, who Bessie called ‘the only white man I ever trusted’, penned a tune called ‘Down Hearted Blues’, gave it to Bessie, and brought her into Columbia’s Columbus Ave. studios to begin her recording career. The life of Bessie Smith, The Empress of the Blues, was about to get a serious kick in the pants.


Next: Bessie Smith Part 2. The world, at least in America, was at her feet.

Back to Copper home page