Bessie Smith was the empress of blues, and that’s a fact that no one argues.

By: Nicole Ebreo and Tia Holman

bessie smith collage

Bessie Smith “was born Elizabeth Smith on April 15, 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee” (“Elizabeth Smith” 1). During her childhood Bessie was faced with many hardships. For example, “Both of her parents had died by her eighth birthday, and she was raised by her older sister Viola" ("Trail of the Hellhound: Bessie Smith" 1). It wasn't long after that Smith discovered the arts, “smith began to preform as a street singer accompanied on the guitar by one of her younger brothers” (“Elizabeth Smith” 1). However it wasn’t until 1912 when Smith got a job, “preforming as a dancer and a single in the Moses strokes minstrel, and soon thereafter in the Rabbit foot Minstrels” (“Elizabeth Smith” 1).


Early beginnings:
For Bessie Smith, " by the time she was nine, both of her parents died" and she was forced into extreme poverty along with her siblings(Kranz 136). Still that did not stop Smith. As for education goes "she is noted as having completed school at least to the eighth grade. During this time Bessie is also said to have started her entertainment career" ("Bessie Smith Story" paragraph 3). Eventually a minstrel troupe came into town in 1912 and her brother had set an audition for her. After she had been accepted into the group, she had "left town with her brother and soon began working closely with Gertrude 'Ma' Rainey who was touring with the minstrel troupe. 'Ma' Rainey is said to be the Mother of the Blues"("Bessie Smith Story" paragraph 4).

Singing Career:
Earlier jobs before Smith's rise in stardom included her as an accompanist at an Irish bar. Also, she performed in a specialty act with Hazel Green. These previous jobs had given her experience leading to her becoming a solo act and travelling the nation. "She toured the south and other regions with her own show" singing and performing as a successful solo artist(Altman 207). During her career, she did collaborate with other fellow jazz artists during this time. As said before, she had also worked closely with 'Ma' Rainey. She was said to be "rescued by blues singer 'Ma' Rainey from the streets of Chattanooga"(Altman 208). As Bessie Smith became one of the most famous blues singers of her time, she collaborated with other artists such as " Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Joe Smith, and James P. Johnson were among the jazz musicians who played on her records"(Tirro 516).
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St. Louis Blues

A Good Man Is Hard To Find

Backwater Blues

Alexander-s Ragtime Band

The St. Louis Blues

Blue spirit blues

Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out

Easy come- easy go blues

Downhearted Blues

I Ain-t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle

Baby Won't You Please Come Home

Muddy Water -A Mississippi Moan-

Empty Bed Blues

My Sweetie Went Away

Gimme a Pigfoot

Nobody Knows You When You-re Down And Out

There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight

Reckless Blues

'Tain't Nobody's Business If I Do

Summertime -From Porgy and Bess-

Lost Your Head Blues

Weepin- Willow Blues

A Good Man Is Hard to Find

You-ve Been A Good Ole Wagon

I'm Wild About That Thing

Young Woman-s Blues

Taint Nobody's Bizness If I Do

Personal Life out of the spotlight:
Smith was described as " a challenging artist who sings whatever she pleases and often gotten angry with audiences that give her less than her full attention"(Altman 206). Bessie Smith had a stern attitude that aided her to get to the fame she accomplished because of her assertive personality.Bessie Smith's attitude was somewhat unlike others. She was very ambitious and determined which enabled her to achieve the skills of a blues artist. In addition, Bessie Smith knew what she wanted since she was also described as "a rough, crude, violent woman"("Bessie Smith" paragraph 1). This personality and attitude combined allowed Smith to gradually become the empress of blues. Bessie Smith had married John Gee in 1923, a night guard in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, "the couple often fought in public, and finally separated in 1930(Otfinoski 554). Toward the end of her life, she unfortunately started having a slight health problem with her weight because "as a younger women, Smith was a slender woman, but as she grew older, her weight went up to 200 pounds or more". This slight weight problem most likely came from stress and her overwhelming life. Although, Smith was still the singing, ambitious woman she always was. People will remember "in death, as in life, Bessie Smith seems larger-than-life personality-the first black female to be part of mainstream American culture"(Altman 206).

Topic Connection
Bessie Smith connects to the Entertainment in the 1930s because Smith was a performer. She provided entertainment to all kinds of people with her powerful voice and her lavish gowns. In addition Bessie connects to present day because of the way she influenced today's music. In the video Bessie Smith on Melissa Etheridge states, "When I discovered Bessie I was like thats where Janice got her stuff, thats where Mick Jagger, Robert Plant, everybody has been listening to Bessie Smith." Bessie Smith has had a large impact on the world of entertaining and with out her the music of today might not be what it is. Bessie Smith also connects to the Harlem Renaissance because she greatly influenced the jazz and blues music style. Smith's music had culturally expanded the 1920s as she had managed to attract much of an audience with her records. Bessie Smith has made a huge difference in helping the African American community to receive their long deserved credit in music because "during the time period, the musical style of blacks was becoming more and more attractive to whites("Harlem Renaissance" paragraph 12). Her singing and acting in 'St. Louis Blues' is an example of her imprint culturally in this time period. Smith's devotion to her music had made an impact upon the Harlem renaissance.

Connection to Health and Social
Bessie Smith defied the stereotypes and never acted based on what society thought of her; for example one time, “she heard Schiffman complain that the girls were so dark they would look grey under the lights she declared she wouldn’t preform without them” (Feinstein, 39). Smith's life was impacted by the social norm of her time. Even some of Smith's important decisions had to be made by Bessie to avoid prejudicial treatment and discrimination like when, “Smith bought a custom railroad car for them [her traveling troupe] to travel and sleep in.” (“Elizabeth Smith” 1). Unfortunately, Smith’s health was greatly impacted by the time in which she lived which is what eventually caused her death because she died from her wounds, “she was reportedly refused treatment at a “whites only” hospital before being taken to one that would treat blacks” (“Elizabeth Smith” 2). Bessie was a leader because she did not follow societies standards since she was known for her, “life-long defiance of the white world, which included a rejection of its most plausible invitations, went back to her childhood in a completely racist South” (Feinstein 4). Throughout her life Smith's social, emotional, physical health was effected by others prejudice.

IB connection
To be a famous African American singer during this time period took guts. That's why Bessie Smith possesses the I.B learner profile trait of being a risk-taker. Smith grew up loving music and at a young age that's what she decided to pursue as "she left home when she was a teen-ager to tour with a minstrel show"(Tirro 515). People believe that is how she came so far. Smith took chances like that without much backup or experience. When she was growing up, Bessie Smith came from a poverty stricken family and was not able to gain much professional music experience, but took the risk to become a famous singer anyway. Bessie Smith knew her capabilities and took the opportunities she had even if the outcomes were uncertain. Bessie gradually made a name for herself while taking steps such as being "part of a specialty act with Hazel Green, but soon moved to a solo act as headliner"(Harrison paragraph 1). The thought of taking one's career to a solo level sounds frightening, but if one takes in perspective of what was happening during this time era , then it makes being successful put in even more jeopardy. During her time period of the early 1900s, discrimination against race was a common everyday thing. Considering Smith's race, she was supposed to feel inferior and understand that people her skin color did not belong in the spotlight. Even though these assumptions were idiotic, those were the obvious stereotypes during the early 1900s. However, once audiences heard Smith sing, they became impressed easily. With the help of gambles and hard work "by 1920 Smith became one of the most popular and highest paid blues singers in the country, attracting both black and white audiences"(Otfinoski 553). Bessie Smith took many chances that were risky and crazy to do, but due to Smith's fearless attitude and hard work, it all worked out.

Significance Of Bessie Smith
Smith was a very influential person of her time and, “she was called at the time, was a powerful, strong-willed women who made her mark in history through singing the blues in the 1920s and 30s” (Hemsworth 1). One thing that made smith so interesting was her defiance because, “Bessie knew what the world thought her place was, but she did not accept that place” (Feinstein 97). However Smith never let bad relations keep her down and, “was receiving an outright $125 per recording; at her height a few years later, she was receiving $2000 per week” (Hemsworth 2) Smith was an amazing singer and performer, “Everyone was drawn to her voice and the lyrics of her songs” (Manera 24) and being an independent women and having the most powerful voice many have ever heard one can only imagine the influence Smith had in her time.

Bessie Smith Quotes
"The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing."
-Bessie Smith

"It's a long old road, but I know I'm gonna find the end."
-Bessie Smith

"I've been poor and I've been rich, and rich is better."
-Bessie Smith

"I ain't good-lookin', but I'm somebody's angel child."
-Bessie Smith, Reckless Blues

"Trouble, trouble, I've had it all my days. It seems that trouble's going to follow me to my grave."
-Bessie Smith, Downhearted Blues

Bessie Smith's Legacy
Bessie Smith will forever be known to us as the Empress of Blues who made history as being one of the most talented signers of her time. Bessie Smith was a woman who did as she pleased. This helped her throughout her life as she followed her gut and sang through the good and bad times as that was simply what made her happy. During her career, she "traveled from town to town singing in clubs, tents, and theatres" entertaining anyone who gave her their time to listen. During the years she had performed as a singer there was racial controversy, but luckily Bessie Smith did not care. "Despite all these problems, Smith refused to quit" and this is what separated her from the little girl who was singing on the streets from the big phenomenon she had become(Altman 208). Luckily, she kicked all her problems away and became one of the most brilliant blues singers of all time.

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Works Cited

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Baughman, Judith S. Bessie Smith New York: Gale Research, 1996.

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"The Best Of Bessie Smith -by- Bessie Smith, .:. Song list." :: DUDUKI.NET :: Music portal :: Music albums, Discography, Band/Performer/Artist profiles. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 May 2013.

Elizabeth Smith. 2013.The Biography Channel Website. April 9, 2013.

Feinstein, Elaine. Bessie Smith Wairau Road, Auckland: Penguin Books, 1985. Print.

"Harlem Renaissance - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 May 2013.

Harrison, Daphne.”Bessie Smith.” Encyclopedia of AfricanAmerican Culture and History. Gale, 2006, Biography in Context. Web.11 April. 2013.

Hemsworth, Joan. Bessie Smith Cathrine Lavender’s History/ Womens Studies 386, 14 Dec.1998 Web. 13 Apr. 2013.

Kranz, Rachel. The Biography Dictionary of Black Americans New York, NY: Scholastic Library,2002.Print.

Manera, Alexandria. Bessie Smith Chicago, Illinois: Raintree 2003. Print.

McCann, Michelle.Welden, Amelie. Girls Who Rocked the World. Hillsboro, Oregon. Beyond Words, 2012. Print.

Otfinoski,Steven. African American in Performing Arts New York, NY:Facts on File, Inc.2003.Print.

"PBS - JAZZ A Film By Ken Burns: Selected Artist Biography - Bessie Smith." PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 May 2013. <

Tirro, Frank. “Smith, Bessie.” World Book Millennium 2000 Vol.17.Chicago, IL; World Book, 2000.516. Print.

"Trail of the Hellhound: Bessie Smith." U.S. National Park Service - Experience Your America. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 May 2013.