History Of The Blues Part III: Bessie Smith & The Classic Blues Singers
In the history of the blues, there are few characters who have played such a pivotal role as Bessie Smith and the early ‘classic blues singers’.
At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a burgeoning blues scene in the Deep South. In rural areas like the Mississippi Delta, itinerant guitarists performed at Juke joints and at local plantations. Many of them were extremely talented musicians, but the reach of their music was limited.
Bessie Smith and her contemporaries changed this. They took the blues to the masses and turned it into a commercial success. In doing so, they paved the way for later blues musicians and provided them with an unprecedented level of opportunity.
Here we will look at Bessie Smith and some of the early women of the blues, and the crucial role they played in the history of the genre.
The Great Migration
As noted in my last article, at the beginning of the 20th century, life for African Americans in the Deep South was extremely difficult. Although slavery had long since been outlawed, for most blacks conditions had barely improved. Sharecropping kept those in rural areas locked in a cycle of debt and depression, and ensured they remained subservient to rich white landowners.
In addition, the early 20th century saw the enforcement of what came to be known as the ‘Jim Crow Laws’. These were state laws and legislature that enforced racial segregation. They disadvantaged blacks in every way imaginable. As author Giles Oakley has observed:
Blacks were socially and racially ostracised, economically expolited and politically crippled in Mississippi…Segregation and humiliation, sometimes massive, sometimes petty, was the lot of every black, whether poor or not.
It was under these circumstances that African Americans began to vote with their feet. Disenfranchised in the Deep South, they started to move north in their masses in search of liberty and greater economic opportunities.
Many of them settled in Chicago.
In Chicago industry was booming. The rapidly expanding railroad, meat packing and steel industries all provided opportunities for blacks from rural areas. These same opportunities also attracted hordes of European immigrants. As Oakley has again noted:
For some Chicago was to become the essence of America, the melting pot of nationalities and races, a city of opportunities for people of energy, or nerves, a city for the big gesture and extravagance
It was around this time that there was an explosion in the music scene, and particularly in black entertainment. Although 1920s Chicago is perhaps more famous now for it’s Jazz scene, it played a huge role at this stage in the history of the blues.
Ma Rainey & Early Blues Success
In the rural Deep South, the blues became popular as a result of travelling minstrel and tent shows. These shows were like carnivals and were compromised of many different elements, including circus performers and exotic animals. One constant in these shows however, was the presence of a blues singer.
Performed on plantations and in rural areas of the Deep South, these shows were hugely popular and gave rise to the first celebrities in the blues.
Of these celebrities, none was more famous than Ma Rainey, ‘the Mother of the Blues’. She was the star of a number of travelling shows, and made a huge amount of money as a result. Her trademark was a necklace of gold coins with matching earrings and she supposedly carried around a suitcase full of $50 and $100 dollar bills, giving money to whomever asked.
Ma Rainey highlighted the growing popularity of the blues, and the commercial opportunity it presented. In doing so, the impact that she had on the genre was immense.
Rainey inspired a generation of female blues singers. Young girls saw her fame and fortune and chose to pursue singing as a career and a way out of plantation life.
The popularity of the tent shows also helped to shape the urban blues scene. When huge numbers of African Americans moved from the Deep South to urban centres like Chicago, they wanted to see similar shows. This demand led to the popularity of theatre shows in Chicago and other cities, which was to play a key role in the development of the blues throughout the 20th century.
Finally and most importantly, Ma Rainey’s early successes helped pave the way for the first blues recordings. This was a pivotal turning point in the history of the blues.
Mamie Smith & The Crazy Blues
Prior to the first blues recordings, the reach of blues music was extremely limited. It was only performed live and done so in a fragmented fashion. This all changed on February 14, 1920.
It was on this day that blues singer Mamie Smith recorded the first blues songs at Okeh Records.
It was a historic moment. Prior to this, no record companies had agreed to record music by black musicians. It took the tenacious efforts of band leader and musician Perry Bradford to change this. After appealing to executives from a range of different record labels, Bradford was eventually able to persuade Fred Hagar of Okeh Records to let Smith record. Hagar agreed, despite a huge amount of resistance from pressure groups, who threatened to boycott the label.
Fortunately for all involved, Hagar was rewarded for holding his nerve. Mamie Smith was a resounding success. Her first two songs – That Thing Called Love and You Can’t Keep A Good Man Down were both hugely popular and the boycott of Okeh records never materialised.
Her third record, Crazy Blues became a smash hit, selling 75,000 copies in it’s first month alone.
The impact that this song had on the history of the blues cannot be overstated. It proved to record labels that the blues was a huge and untapped market. More female blues singers started recording and black musicians were given new and exciting opportunities.
Crucially, it totally altered the landscape of the blues. Blues was no longer confined to plantations and Juke Joints. It was listened to and appreciated all over America and began to come together as a coherent musical form.
This led to greater variety within the genre and more talented musicians coming to the fore. Amongst these was Bessie Smith.
Bessie Smith – ‘The Empress Of The Blues’
Bessie Smith took the success of singers like Ma Rainey and Mamie Smith to new heights. She was almost universally popular with black audiences. She was even popular amongst white record buyers and theatre goers in the north.
Unlike Ma Rainey and those singers who sang about rural America, Smith’s songs were ‘less localised in their subject matter’. Thus their appeal was broader. Combined with her powerful and emotive signing, her songs quickly captured the public’s imagination.
As is true of almost all blues music, Smith’s songs are predominantly concerned with the sexual relationship. Her personal life was notoriously tempestuous. She had a troubled marriage to Chicago bootlegger Jack Gee, as well as a string of affairs with both men and women. This provided the material of many of her songs, as was noted by the ‘Chicago Defender’ in 1924:
Bessie sure is a him-hater on this record. The way she tells what she is going to do with her ‘butcher’ will make trifling fellows catch express trains going at sixty miles an hour. The music is full of hate too. You can almost see hate dripping from the piano keys
Bessie Smith’s reputation only added to her appeal. She was a powerful, fearless and very impressive woman. One such example of her incredible spirit was illustrated when a gang of Ku Klux Klansmen attacked a tent in which she was performing. Smith ran outside and confronted them. She met them with a string of obscenities and threatened that she would gather the audience of the tent to ward them off. They took little convincing and soon left.
Bessie Smith’s Legacy
Unlike Ma Rainey and many of the other ‘Classic Blues’ singers of the 1920s, Bessie Smith’s legacy has been longer lasting.
Her music addressed the struggles that African Americans faced, both in the rural and urban environments. There is no better example of this than her 1928 record, Poor Man’s Blues, the scathing lyrics of which read:
Mister rich man, rich man, open up your heart and mind;
Give the poor man a chance, help stop these hard, hard times.
While you’re living in your mansion, you don’t know what hard times mean.
While you’re living in your mansion, you don’t know what hard times mean;
Poor working man’s wife is starving; your wife is living like a queen.
This represented somewhat of a shift away from the lighter subject matter of her female predecessors. Although Bessie Smith commanded a wage of $1500 per week at the height of her career, she never forgot the abject poverty of her childhood. She continued to ‘identify with the poor and dispossessed’ and was celebrated for it. As author Giles Oakley so beautifully puts it:
In a society that which denied black people the dignity of human equality, denied them the means to strive for it, the trappings of riches and success were symbols of great potency. That the successes of the great blues singers like Bessie Smith…were based on their own intimate knowledge and experience of the blues culture of the poor and dispossessed made the symbolism even more profound
To this day, Bessie Smith remains a symbol of resistance against the difficulties faced by African Americans.
Women In The Blues
The importance of women in the history of the blues cannot be overstated. It was female singers like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith that first made the blues a commercial success. Prior to them, the blues was a fragmented musical form, reliant on live performances and a strong oral tradition within rural communities.
The records of the ‘Classic Blues’ singers have since proven to be more ephemeral than those of the musicians in the Mississippi Delta. Yet the role that they played in the history of the blues is immense.
Bessie Smith and her contemporaries totally altered the landscape of the genre. They brought the blues to the masses and provided opportunities for the next generation of black musicians. It is a grave injustice then, that women have come to occupy such a marginalised position in the blues. For were it not for these women, the history of the blues would be quite different.