Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Bessie Smith, Free-spirited Empress

Women's History Month

If you want your eggs hatched, sit on them yourself. (Haiti)

Bessie Smith was one of the great blues singers. She was also an independent-minded woman who allowed nothing and no one to contain her. Indeed, Bessie was so rambunctious that today's paparazzi would have plagued her, and today's tabloids would have relied on her exploits for their sales.

She was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1894 (or 1898, or 1900). Her father was a laborer and Baptist preacher who died when Bessie was very young. By the time she was nine, her mother died as well, and Bessie’s older sister headed the family.

Bessie and her brother Andrew earned money for their household by singing and dancing on the street. When Bessie was 18, she was hired as a dancer by the company that included Ma Rainey. The two became friends, and Ma Rainey is credited with helping Smith to develop stage presence.

In 1923, Bessie was signed to Columbia Records, and ultimately made almost 200 recordings. She made some particularly memorable recordings with Louis Armstrong.

Working busy theatre circuits and tent tours as well, she became the highest paid (and therefore most newsworthy) entertainer of her day. She was popular with Blacks and whites, and was termed “The Empress of Blues”.

Bessie seemed to live the blues, and was willing to fight to correct anything she saw as mistreatment. She was six feet tall and weighed about two hundred pounds, with a voice to match her size. She would use her fists on managers, employees or singers who got on her wrong side. Reports say she once knocked down a man who was bigger than she, because he was harassing her and her friends. When the man stabbed Smith, she chased him in the street till she fell down from loss of blood.

When she caught her then husband in an affair with one of her chorus girls, she beat up the woman and threw her off a parked train. Then she chased her husband down the railroad track firing at him with his own gun. The words of “Please Help Me Get Him Off My Mind” express Smith’s views on the about-to-be-ex–husband:

It's all about a man who always kicks and dogs me around
It's all about a man who always kicks and dogs me aroun';
And when I try to kill him, that's when my love for him come down.

In "Empty Bed Blues" she sings of a lover whom she suspects of infidelity:

Lord he's got that sweet somethin' and I told my girlfriend Lou
From the way she's raving, she must have gone and tried it too

Bessie was not necessarily faithful, and she apparently preferred dark-skinned lovers (male or female). According to reports, she regularly slept with one of her chorus girls, and also had an affair with her male pianist. Further, she once was jailed after a fight with another woman over a male dancer.

The circumstances of Smith’s death sparked more controversy and drew more attention than she received during her lifetime. Writers of the time claimed Smith died because a white hospital refused to attend to her after she was injured in a car accident. However, it appears that she had bled to death before she reached the Black hospital to which she was taken. Seven thousand persons attended her funeral.

Inheritors of Smith’s legacy include Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, and Aretha Franklin


Ann T. said...

Dear Yvonne,

My favorite Bessie Smith story is the one where she thought the theatre owner was cheating her. She put on her white ermine fur coat and her diamonds and had a one-person demonstration in the lobby, pacing back and forth until she got what she wanted.

I am sure the show went on until the late hours of the night.

This may be legend and not fact, but I can see it in my imagination for certain!

Ann T.
P.S. Thanks for dropping by my blog! You've got some incredible posts here!

Yvonne McCalla Sobers said...

Hi Ann,

Thanks much for adding this Bessie Smith story. She was such a character that the lines between legend and fact naturally become blurred. And, like you, I can certainly imagine Bessie pacing that lobby like a tigress.

Thanks a lot for visiting my blog, and for giving me your feedback on the posts here.



CalumCarr said...

I haven't got time to listen to the music at mo. Will come back again. Thanks for passing by my place.

Yvonne McCalla Sobers said...

Thanks for dropping by. I look forward to seeing you back when you have time to listen to the music.

It was my pleasure to pass by your page.




When the occasion arises, there is a proverb to suit it. (Proverb from Rwanda and Burundi)

Welcome to this space where we can talk about proverbs that we can relate to (or not), and proverbs that make sense to us (or not). Most of all we can discuss how proverbs make us think about life and living. We can also share experiences of proverbs that have provided us with lifelines or just the chance to reflect.

Some of the proverbs here may also be found in "Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs", published by Random House and authored by Askhari Johnson Hodari and me. The foreword is written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

One of the unique features of our book is that we arranged the proverbs according to life cycle, in sections including, Birth, Childhood, Love, Marriage, and Intimacy, Challenge, and Death.

For more proverbs and for information on Lifelines: the Black Book of Proverbs, please visit us at