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American Routes Shortcuts: Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith
Carl Van Vechten
Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith, Empress of the Blues, was the first African American superstar, an artist that mingled regal dignity with sensuality. We’ll sample her recorded legacy, talk with critics and hear memories of her contemporaries from the Jazz Age of the 1920s.  

Nick Spitzer: Born in 1894 in the Blue Goose Hollow neighborhood of Chattanooga, Tennessee, Bessie Smith was the child of migrants from rural Alabama. Her father, formerly enslaved, had become a preacher and day laborer, her mother a laundress. Both parents died when Bessie was young, leaving her and six siblings to find their own way. For Bessie, that was singing on street corners for tips, which she did in front of the White Elephant Saloon, with popular songs of the day. Music scholar Maureen Mahon:

Maureen Mahon: Very early on, she and one of her brothers would kind of do busking in the streets of Chattanooga. It was a way to make money, and they could make more money standing on the street corner singing than they could doing the kind of work that would have otherwise been available to them, you know, cleaning houses, doing laundry, that sort of thing. She had a talent, people could hear it in her voice, and I think she decided that she was going to focus on that because it was just a better option than the kind of a labor that was expected for African Americans to do at that time.

NS: Chattanooga was crossroads for Southern rail lines: Alabama Great Southern, Cincinnati Southern and the Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis lines, connecting New Orleans, Atlanta, and New York City. Touring minstrel shows and musicians would set up in town as a layover between trains. One of those groups was Tolliver’s Circus and Musical Extravaganza, which featured a duo billed as

“Rainey & Rainey: Assassinators of the Blues.” That would be Ma Rainey and her husband Will. Here’s Ma Rainey in 1924.

NS: Ma Rainey on Paramount Records with Louis Armstrong on cornet, Fletcher Henderson, piano. The first recording of “See See Rider,” a now well-loved blues song that came out of black vaudeville. Bessie Smith was influenced by Ma Rainey and eventually auditioned for the show but was hired as a “chorine,” or a chorus girl, because the show already had its blues singer in Ma Rainey. New Orleans jazz musician Archie Martin, who played with both Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, noticed their difference as performers and singers.

Archie Martin: Ma Rainey’s voice was more heavy than Bessie’s voice, see? Bessie was a good singer but Ma Rainey had a heavier voice. Which to my knowledge, Bessie Smith beat her at singing, I think she beat her singing. But Ma Rainey her voice was so loud and her actions was more, you know, what I mean? She had more actions. She’d dance and make actions with all of her songs, like she’s falling off a log, all like that, you know. She was just good.

To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.