The Empress Pivotal figure in not only music, but as one with great influence in a changing society. Musically: the bridge from “down home” or rural blues to a more sophisticated urban form. Within Society: an iconic figure of the great migration of rural African-Americans of the south to northern cities. Her blues were not just sorrowful, but also pointed out injustices This presentation examines Bessie’s life and music, plus the technology that helped create her identity. With all these attributes intact she became a transitional figure of music of the 1920’s.
Believed to have been born in 1893 around Chattanooga Tennessee Lost both parents at a very young age There existed no good system for orphaned children Many children took to urban streets by begging, stealing, or “busking” for money. Bessie and her brother Clarence became street performers. Still at a rough pre-teen age, Bessie joined her first minstrel show - The Moses Stokes Travelling Show
“Ma” Rainey immediately saw in Bessie the empress she would become. She and her husband mentored Bessie. Later it had been circulated that Bessie was kidnapped by Ma Rainey. This seems farfetched especially since Bessie’s choices were either the street or the stage. Ma Rainey However, the street and the minstrel show stage were one of the root causes that lead Bessie to not only sing the blues but live them out as well. She became a heavy drinker and barroom brawler, living out in exaggerated actions the very lyrics she emoted.
The song “Me and My Gin” is an example of Bessie’s portrayal of the blues and her lifestyle. This song about “Gin” can be an allegory for many other things. Look over the lyrics and see if you can come up with any other interpretations of what this song is about. Clues; alcoholism, love, oppression, (double click or open hyperlink to song) prostitution, misogyny, etc. Also, what musical form of the blues is being used? Stay away from me ‘cause I’m in my sin Stay away from me ‘cause I’m in my sin. If this place gets raided, it’s just me and my gin. Don’t try me nobody, oh, you will never win. Don’t try me nobody ‘cause you will never win. I’ll fight the army, navy just me and my gin.
Any bootlegger sure is a pal of mine. Any bootlegger sure is a pal of mine. ‘Cause a good ol’ bottle o’ gin will get it all the time. When I’m feeling high ain’t nothing I won’t do. When I’m feeling high ain’t nothing I won’t do. Get me full of liquor and I’ll sure be nice to you. I don’t want no pork and I don’t need no beer. I don’t want no pork and I don’t need no beer. I don’t want no porkchop just give me gin instead
“I believe there are only two truly regal women in the world, my mother (the queen) and Bessie Smith.” - Prince of Wales “Whatever pathos there is in the world, whatever sadness she had, was brought out in her singing-and the audience knew it and responded to it.” - Frank Schiffman, owner of the Apollo theater Bessie’s royal image came not only from her larger than life personality and powerful voice. It also took some clever promotion from her record company and the exposure from the emerging commercial radio stations of 1920’s.
Prior to the 1920’s, it was assumed there was no market for African-American musicians. But the sales success of Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” turned the heads of the labels. After that, record labels scramble to find blues singers, especially women. Columbia Records, Okeh, Paramount, and Vocalion started to develop separate departments and release recordings entitled “race records”. Bessie Smith’s recordings of “Gulf Coast Blues” and “Down Hearted Blues” from 1923 on Columbia are thought to be her first recordings. Their release proved to be an overwhelming success. 800,000 sold in the first six months. But it just wasn’t the record industry at work for Bessie’s popularity.
Commercial radio boomed in the 1920’s:
Radio was limited during World War I
It became easier to pick up cheap radio sets
Radios doubled as pieces of furniture and soon replaced the parlor piano
Much like today, radio hosts played records live over the air and included occasional live performances. The radio reached an incredibly broad audience. Bessie could be heard crying the blues from the homes of white middle class neighborhoods. Soon, Bessie would be giving separate shows to white only audiences and she did so gladly, for the ticket sales and salaries were increased for such occasions.
Through records and radio, Bessie became the foremost lady blues singer and transitional icon between old time blues (Ma Rainey) and a more sophisticated form of modern blues. Both started recording in 1923, but Bessie’s more urban style contained a depth which African-American music had not known before.
Bessie’s new urban style: 1. Her voice displayed a sophisticated phrasing not previously known 2. She anticipated chords 3. Her tone was of a richer variety. 4. The lyrical content of her songs contained an abundance of metaphors 5. Her rhythmic treatment of tunes, especially with the use of triplets in duple meter, exhibited a more jazzy than bluesy feeling. In the following song Graveyard Dream Blues, see if you can pick out these techniques.
Graveyard Dream Blues Blues on my mind, blues all around my head Blues on my mind, and blues all around my head I dreamed last night that the man that I love was dead I went to the graveyard, fell down on my knees I went to the graveyard, fell down on my knees And I asked the gravedigger to give me back my real good man please The gravedigger look me in the eye The gravedigger look me in the eye Said “I’m sorry lady but your man has said his last goodbye” I wrung my hands and I wanted to scream I wrung my hands and I wanted to scream But when I woke up I found it was only a dream Double Click or Open Hyperlink Bessie and her husband Jack Gee
Bessie continued to make good money and toured throughout the 1920’s, but had transitioned to a more modern and urban sound. Musicians that followed her took up where she left off and progressed the form even further. Duke Ellington and Count Basie used Bessie’s techniques and placed them in a much more rich and complex setting. The big band and swing era would sweep the nation.
The depression changed what the nation desired to listen to. The big beat of the swing bands covered up the reality of the depression. Bessie would try and adjust to the changes by recording for Okeh (included many big band musicians). Radio and records had started Bessie on her ride and they contributed to her diminished stature as the Empress.
Seen here in the movie St. Louis Blues from 1929, Bessie sings a song by the same name composed by W.C. Handy. This is a moment in history where the crash of the stock market and Bessie’s popularity come together. Open the following link to view the scene. St. Louis Blues by Bessie Smith
In 1937 Bessie died in an automobile accident. She was to become one of many tortured souls whose light burned bright and fast. That flame still can be seen when we listen to her music and share her experience. Music transcends race and moves beyond assumption Bessie’s history was sung straight into the heart, from the heart. Bessie Smith’s ability, god given or street learned, (maybe both) takes its rightful place in American music history. Without her special gifts, music would not have certain elements that the listener now takes for granted. Bessie “is” the empress.
The emerging race record and commercial radio of the 1920’s that Bessie Smith was a part of really made a mark on American culture. They ushered in the Jazz Age. Many artists from differing backgrounds would progress forward with elements of what Bessie had created. In a group discussion, write about what influences we see today in American music. What connections to Bessie Smith’s experience can be made? Think about the media, the music itself, and lyrical content from Bessie to now, Could a Bessie Smith happen today?
This has been a powerpoint presentation provided by group 6 of American Musical Traditions MUS 376U. Portland State University. The following students have provided research and have participated in the construction of the powerpoint: Lori Haddan & RyannSteininger provided the biographical information TahmeenaRaheel and Christopher Maddox provided information on race records and the commercialization of radio Samuel Varhan and KorenSasse researched photos and pictures used in the presentation.. Sara Gates and Elizabeth Lamson chose the songs and provided the lyrics for the presentation. Anna Holly (who recorded the narrative) and Todd Ahseln handled the physical construction of the powerpoint
Sources of Information 1. Albertson, Chris. “Bessie”. Yale University Press, 2003. 2.Youtube-http://youtu.be/8Who6fTHJ34 3.Smith, Bessie. “The Complete Recordings Vol. 1, 2, 3, & 4 Columbia Records. 1991 4.Schoenberg, Loren. Jazz: An American Music History. 5.notablebiographies.com/Sc-St/Smith-Bessie.html 6.pbs.org/jazz/exchange/exchange race records.html 7.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi g1epc/is tov/ai 2419101005 8.flickr.com/photos/