Bessie Smith was a bi blues singer who inspired people of colour, musicians and women to stand up and make their presence felt. She also beat her husband and left her tour mates stranded on more than one occasion. Problematic, complicated, but not to be forgotten for what she achieved.
by Jacinta Octavia Morrissey
Dear Bessie Smith,
In a world where women and people of colour were oppressed, you rose to the top – inspiring not just blues singers but women and other people of colour for years to come. You didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer and lived your life exactly how you wanted to, ignoring the call to conform. Your music tells us all a bit about you.
Love Mookychick xxx
Bessie Smith quotes
“I’ve been poor and I’ve been rich, and rich is better.”
“I ain’t good-lookin’, but I’m somebody’s angel child.”
Bessie Smith best known for
Being African-American, bi, and ‘The Empress of the Blues’ in the 1920’s. Also for having multiple lovers.
Bessie Smith least known for
Bessie had a temper and intermittently got into fights with her husband, leaving them both bruised and bleeding. We weren’t there when it happened, so maybe we shouldn’t judge.
Bessie Smith rose from very humble beginnings and made herself one of the most influential artists of her time. She was herself and made no apologies for doing what she pleased, even though doing what she wanted often got her in trouble with the law and made her hated by other female artists. She didn’t do the ‘settle down and raise kids’ thing that women were supposed to do, instead choosing to tour America.
A short history of the indomitable Bessie Smith
Bessie Smith, born Elizabeth Smith on the 15th of April 1894 (the date is arguable) was one of seven children, orphaned at eight. She and her brother played guitar and sang to help support the others. When she was 17 she got a job as a dancer and singer and learned her street smarts as an African-American woman. In 1920 Bessie started her own show in Atlantic City. Three years later she saved a dying recording company with her first album! She had the experience of recording with some of the recognised greats such as Louis Armstrong. Notoriously stubborn and territorial, Bessie Smith refused to be in the same show as another blues singer as she toured her way across America. She created elaborate alibis to conceal infidelity and when she couldn’t pay her crew she left them stranded in remote locations. Like many, the Great Depression hit her hard as classical blues was going out of style. She last recorded in 1933.
She was exceptionally proud of being a strong and independent black woman who indulged herself with alcohol and lovers of multiple sexes. She found herself in jail on a number of occasions and gave as good as she got in fights. 1923 saw her married to Jack Gee, though they fought and on one occasion she threw him off a train when she caught him with her female lover. In 1937 she was going out with a bootlegger and on a drive through Mississippi they crashed. Where she was taken and by whom was a source of rumours. The only certainty is that Bessie Smith died on the 16th of September 1937 due to blood loss.