Known as the Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith’s honest style and bellowing voice didn’t just bring the blues to the masses – it put her among America’s musical Greats and set the stage for Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday to follow. Her work lays bare her grit, hopes and pains with unique intimacy and easy relatability. (See the video above). In this post, we look into Bessie’s style and personality and finish with four of her best songs.
One of the pet topics of The Great Everything is, well… Greatness. What makes something not just pleasurable, popular or pretty, but truly Great?
Unfortunately, that standard is a tall ask for artists who use language as their primary medium. Language is approximative relative to the precise (or sometimes confused) sentiments and ideas we all spend our days trying to communicate to others. So, for any singer to let us in on the true core of who they are through their work, the words of the Austrian philosopher of language, Ludwig Wittgenstein, ring particularly true:
The limits of my language means the limits of my world. (in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus)
It’s with this challenge in mind that the amazing sincerity and resonance of Bessie Smith, Empress of the Blues, are so striking. If you don’t know her uniquely intimate sound, it’s time.
The Bessie Smith Exception
Here was a woman able to compensate for linguistic limitations just by simplifying her lyrics and subjects and upping the human timbre of her delivery accordingly. Paradoxically, it was this simplification that gave her (and much of the blues) the depth and emotional punch for which she (and the genre) became famed.
It was central to Bessie Smith’s art that she simplified rather than elaborated her themes. In modern times […] ‘soul’ has been progressively exaggerated, to the point where a simple blues becomes a positive firework display of shrieks and moans and wild vocal contortions. Neither the classic female singers nor the country bluesmen who preceded them went for such antics. Humphrey Lyttleton
Bessie was a wholesome, intoxicating, profoundly genuine icon of early blues music. Her endearing, hope-tinged depictions of a life of excess, personal inadequacy and recurrent misery give us that rare thing – a genuine path straight to her core. We consider it Great because it couldn’t be a more intimate depiction of her Self. Unlike most vocal artists (outside of hip-hop), when you listen to Bessie,you quickly come to know her.
Throw in the fact she’s from the (American) South, an early African-American icon and entirely absent from today’s musical radar, and Bessie Smith was bound to feature on The Great Everything. The blues, more generally, are too important to ignore.
The music I most want to listen to is the blues. Something about blues as an expression of the human condition is just so powerful. If black people hadn’t achieved anything else but the creation of blues, it would still make black people important in the creation of the modern world. Gerald Early
Background to Bessie
A lot of people today seem to have forgotten Bessie. They know the name, but rarely the music.
By common consensus, she’s the Greatest female blues singer ever to have lived. But why should we care about her singular ability to convey her core: her life experience and her messages? After all, the world’s full of people with a story to tell. Why hers?
Well, I’d say Bessie lived through quite a lot. Highlights include:
• being orphaned at 9;
• growing up with 7 siblings in a 1-bedroom shack in Tennessee, long before Jack Daniels adverts had made Tennessee cool;
• generally enjoying being a black woman in the Deep South in the early 1900s, Ku Klux Klan included (she once chased them away from one of her gigs, single-handedly);
• living an actively bisexual life alongside her miserable marriage, getting cheated on (and cheating) repeatedly, and suffering routine physical abuse from male companions;
• becoming wealthier than any black American had ever been before – the Oprah of her time;
• advancing the Harlem Renaissance and inspiring the female blues/jazz singers that followed, including Ella Fitzgerald & Billie Holiday;
• being a tragic hostage to her untameable temper and vices, with utterly destructive consequences for herself and anyone who ever dared love her.
That’s interesting enough for us.
An indomitable spirit
Bessie’s music is as indomitable as she was herself – bellowing, rough, repeatedly bleak, but also deeply warm, hopeful and human, all in one. True to her DNA, it’s both sweet and lion-like: a sound palate that hadn’t existed before. Bessie pinches us right where it hurts, touching on things we spend our lives shying away from: rejection, our desire (but varying ability) to love, abuse, addiction, prejudice and our hope for a better tomorrow.
That’s why she sticks.
It was like she had that hurt inside her all the time, and she was just bound to find it. Sidney Bechet (one of Bessie’s one-time lovers)
By all accounts, Bessie was not an easy person to deal with. Dominated by a volcanic fury that would erupt unannounced, she was a slave to alcohol, pointlessly confrontational and helplessly promiscuous. Thankfully, her outrageous charisma and unique sound carried her through, captivating 1920s audiences and leading to collaborations with the founding fathers of jazz.
She dominated the stage. You didn’t turn your heard when she went on. You just watched Bessie. For people who came from the South as I did, you could recognise a similarity between what she was doing and what preachers from there could do – how they moved people. Danny Barker
[Before delving into Bessie’s style and recordings: a quick shout out to HBO’s biopic, Bessie, which does a solid job of bringing both the character and her music to life. The film is lacking in that it shies away from huge parts of the life story that made her who she was, but it translates her music and her aura pretty effectively for anyone coming fresh to the topic. Check out the video that heads this page for a preview. And if you really want to know her amazing story, read Bessie by Chris Albertson. Music geeks will also love Edward Brooks’ The Bessie Smith Companion.]
Bessie Smith Classics
First, a warning. Bessie Smith’s recordings all date from the 1920s and 1930s. It goes without saying that the recording quality back then was prehistoric compared to what we’re used to now. To an unaccustomed ear, some of the audio experience here will seem thin at first. Accepting this and focusing on the quality of Bessie’s delivery, timbre and soulfulness instead is key to getting over that obstacle and enjoying her work. (If you’re struggling at the start, as we once did, try a classic New Orleans cocktail to help lubricate the senses…)
Here’s four of our Bessie Smith favourites – we hope you enjoy them.
1. Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out
Backed by a strong performance from Ed Allen on the cornet, this beautifully simple piece from 1929 dwells on the isolation that can follow loss of wealth or well-being. It was perfectly timed given the onset of the Great Depression that same year. Note the excellent base brass in the background, which distinguishes even the deepest notes and only adds to the subdued feel.
Here, Bessie is as cynical as she is in her songs about lost love – although she shows deftness in not straying into self-pity. Few artists are better placed than her to understand the reality of both abject poverty and the fall from grace that often follows stardom. Her detached air of sadness in this song compensates for its fairly unremarkable lyrics, but above all, from a technical perspective this song is about subtleties. The way she sings the line buying bootleg liquor reminds us of her capacity for swagger even when morose. The first syllable of the word Nobody at the beginning of the second chorus is drawn out to cover a range of notes, the subtle growling sound of it only heightening our impression of her dismay.
Smith moves between introspective humming, harsh cynicism and outcry at the world’s fickleness, topped up by a dainty cornet solo from Allen that’s filled with regret. In 1966, Gunther Schuller, revived this piece in his Kafka opera The Visitation.
It’s a classic.
2. St Louis Blues
Another classic. In The St Louis Blues of 1925, focused on deserted love, Bessie was supported by the one and only: Louis Armstrong. The key thing to appreciate here is the perfect rapport between Louis’ open cornet (which Bessie viewed as a threat) and Bessie’s voice – with Louis’ cornet dancing cheekily around the slower undertones imposed by Bessie.
One of Bessie’s hallmarks was to limit the musical range of her songs to six notes, such that a small change in just one note could have a disproportionate emotive impact on the listener. A Great example in this song is where the first two verses begin with the exact same lyrics I hate to see that evening sun go down; feeling tomorrow like I feel today. In the second verse, you’ll hear how she drops to a flatter note when she says see and again, a very ‘blue’ note on the last two syllables of tomorrow. This deviation from the exact sound we predicted is of course key to jazz generally, but such improvised ‘flattening’ specifically is fundamental to the blues.
I also love the way Bessie rearranges the intended flow of a line of lyrics to meet her own structural objectives, just by inserting a breathing point in the middle of one – and to hell with grammar or meaning! In the last verse of this song (I’ve got the Saint Louis Blues just as blue as I can be), she strikes an unexpected pause on the second as, detaching it entirely from the prior words. Intriguingly, this destruction of the sense of sentences actually magnifies the emotional baggage of the song, making it seem less rehearsed.
Nobody had used this seemingly simple technique so effectively before Bessie.
3. Hard Driving Papa
This isn’t a particularly famous but it’s one of my favourites for sheer power. Rudi Blesh called it a bitterly despairing song, about domestic abuse and victim Bessie’s ensuing fantasies of death. It’s painfully autobiographical in her case (though she was no doubt a hard driving mama, too) and comes with a scorpion sting: just when you get the feeling things can’t get any bleaker, Bessie reveals: I love him […] because there’s no-one can beat me like he do.
This is one of Bessie’s rare moments of apparently unmitigated despair, wrote Elspeth Probyn.
4. I’m Wild About That Thing
This song is the original booty call: If you want so satisfy my soul, Come on and rock me with a steady roll, I’m wild about that thing, gee… I like your ting-a-ling.
Spot on. That’s what I like to call it too, Bessie. Mah ting-a-ling.
What can I say about this one, from 1929?
She is singing about it.
In case you thought the blues had no room for humour, Bessie reminds us that sorrow and laughter are never more than an inch (or six) apart. This is Bessie at her most salacious. Hell, she’s not even trying to create double entendres anymore – girl’s just horny and felt like tellin’ ya. By all accounts, this wasn’t rare.
Although this is written as a classic 12-bar blues, Bessie gives it the feel of a pop song with a quick tempo and a pretty varied melody. In the last chorus, a bit of a growl even kicks in. Personally I’d have liked to see what she got up to the minute she finished this recording. I bet the doorman had a night to remember.
Bessie makes a Great starting point for anyone interested in the birth of the blues and female jazz vocalists. They’re an important part of the root of our modern music and their fine talents are often paired with fascinating life stories, intimately conveyed.
We’ll be marking Bessie’s date of birth on April 15, 2017 with a special audio feature on her on The Great Everything Radio, our audio channel onAnchor.fm– you can download Anchor on your phones and tablets and listen in, or even contribute yourself. In the meantime, drop us a line if you (re)discover some Bessie Smith favourites of your own. We’d love to hear what they are.