CULTURAL BITS: Bessie Smith.


If I go to church on Sunday
Then just shimmy down on Monday
Ain’t nobody’s bizness if I do

Is the film clip from Ken Burns’ Jazz series? That’d be my guess. A few days ago I streamed a couple of Bessie Smith’s compilation albums, and if you know her recorded output by “Gimme A Pigfoot” alone, there’s lots more of interest in the archive. Insofar as Bessie Smith could do it her way, she did. The result was a canon that has endured for 80-odd years since her final recordings.

Bessie Smith Cultural Center

At an early age Bessie began performing on the streets of Chattanooga. In pursuit of a better life, Bessie left Chattanooga in 1912 to join a traveling minstrel and vaudeville show as a dancer and singer with Pa and Ma Rainey. As a teenager, Ma Rainey became Bessie’s mentor and she stayed with the show until 1915. She gradually developed her own following in the south and along the eastern seaboard. Ma Rainey greatly influenced Bessie’s showmanship, however Bessie’s elegant contralto and her hypnotizing delivery was very different from that of Rainey.

By the time of her death, Bessie was known around the world. She was a beloved diva who appeared with the best players of the day at sold out concerts in theaters coast to coast. Bessie’s pleasing contralto and mesmerizing showmanship propelled her from poverty to international fame as a singer of “classic” blues tunes, many of which she wrote and co-wrote. Before the Great Depression, Bessie was the highest-paid black entertainer in the world, collecting as much as two thousand dollars a week to sing such songs as her own, “Nobody Knows you When You’re Down and Out,” “Empty Bed Blues,” and “Backwater Blues,” accompanied by the finest musicians of the day, including Louis Armstrong, Lonnie Johnson, and Benny Goodman.