Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Bessie Smith poses for a portrait circa 1925.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Bessie Smith poses for a portrait circa 1925.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Singer Bessie Smith's recording career lasted only 10 years, but during that time she created a body of work that helped shape the sound of the 20th century. Her first single, "Downhearted Blues" — written by two women, pianist Lovie Austin and blues singer Alberta Hunter — was a major hit in 1923, selling hundreds of thousands of copies and helping her label, Columbia Records, out of a financial slump. With her subsequent recordings, Smith was one of the artists who propelled the fledgling "race records" market of music targeted to black audiences that had launched a few years earlier in 1920 with Mamie Smith's hit "Crazy Blues." Through the rest of the 1920s, Bessie Smith became one of the earliest stars of recorded music and a leading figure of what came to be called classic blues (a genre dominated by African American women). She was the highest-paid African American artist working in music and the first African American superstar. Bessie Smith's sound and her attitude, rooted in a distant era, are with us in the 21st century.
In that first hit record, "Downhearted Blues," you can still hear what won the hearts of her audiences. A lament about the problems associated with love relationships, Smith sings about "being crazy about a man" who mistreated her and broke her heart. It's a situation that most listeners (then and now) can relate to, but what sets the song apart is the attitude she assumes as she tells her story. In the opening lines she confronts the simple, terrible fact that "it's hard to love someone when that someone don't love you" and the pain that situation causes. But she also makes a commitment to avoiding this kind of agony in the future. "The next man I get," she sings in a subsequent stanza, "has got to promise to be mine, all mine." The song's final lines express a confidence that suggests she might succeed in doing so:
I got the world in a jug, the stopper's in my hand
I got the world in a jug, the stopper's in my hand
I'm gonna hold it until you men come under my command
Smith's protagonist presents herself as a person with power and agency, someone who can choose and refuse, someone who will no longer be put upon or accept whatever she is handed. This is a defiant stance, especially for a poor, black woman to assume, and one that surely resonated with black female listeners. As black feminist critics Daphne Duval Harrison and Angela Davis have explained in their books on the classic blues, Smith's songs are tales of liberated women who are not afraid to speak openly about what they want, what they need and what they are tired of.
By the time she became the bona fide superstar whose influence earned her the nickname "The Empress of the Blues," Smith had been singing for decades. Orphaned by age 9 and raised by older siblings, Smith sang for spare change on the street corners of her hometown of Chattanooga, Tenn., and went out on the road when she was 16. She learned how to hold the attention of an audience in the makeshift rural venues and city theaters where touring black artists performed throughout the South in the early 20th century. An all-around entertainer, she developed an act that consisted of songs, dances, jokes and sketches.
Her onstage costumes of gowns, wigs, plumes and elaborate headdresses communicated glamour and wealth, and she carried herself with a regal bearing that fit her nickname. But Smith's singing voice, of course, is the element that remains, the element that made her a legend. When Smith rendered a song she tapped into her experiences of the hardships of poverty, racism, sexism and, above all, the ups and downs of love. This gave her a down-to-earth quality that made it easy for her black, working-class audience to connect with her. Whether she was singing the "Empty Bed Blues (Parts 1 and 2)" (1928), a ribald and humorous meditation on the sexual prowess of a lover, or expressing the terrifying experience of a flood in "Backwater Blues" (1927), Smith's authoritative delivery conveyed an authenticity that suggested she had actually lived through the things she sang about. An excellent storyteller, she made prodigious use of her skills as vocalist, actress and comedian to develop convincing and compelling performances, live and on record.
Smith sang about the things her audiences were living and feeling and, as a result, they identified with her deeply. Decades before hip-hop artists rapped about the vicissitudes of black working-class life — often constructing personas who seemed to have lived the lyrics — Smith sang about the everyday reality of wanting to live life to its fullest as a young, black, poor woman—a category of person that the mainstream of America ignored with impunity, but a category that Smith, through her sonorous, commanding vocals, insisted was important. Her voice reverberates with the tone and color of the South and her lyrics, peppered with colloquialisms and turns of phrase associated with black English, brought a distinctively African American woman's perspective into the public conversation at a time when black voices and black experiences barely registered there. By singing about black lives with care and conviction, Smith and her sister classic blues women Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter and Sippie Wallace advanced the revolutionary idea that black lives mattered — and specifically, that black women's lives mattered.
Appreciating the artistry of Smith can be challenging for 21st century listeners. Our ears are accustomed to the insistent, amplified rhythms that propel rap, R&B and rock, and we expect songs to have verses, choruses and occasional bridges that lend a measure of sonic variety to these three- or four-minute-long productions. In contrast, the classic blues, with their acoustic instrumentation, might sound quiet, slow and repetitive. The repeated lines and consistent chord changes inherent to the classic 12-bar structure can feel static to contemporary listeners, but even in the 1920s, there were listeners who found Smith's Southern blues too slow. Smith's primary audience comprised Southern working-class African Americans who connected with the content, feel and pace of her music, and it was likely that they were already familiar with the form. The precise starting point of the blues is hazy, but scholars place its origins in the post-Emancipation musical practices of African Americans living in the South. It was music that formerly enslaved people created, using it to explore deeply personal experiences and the worries, tensions and desires that accompanied them.
To hear Smith's genius and to begin to understand the power of the blues, we need to slow down and adjust to her tempo so we can appreciate the care and skill with which she makes her vocal choices. Working within the framework of the blues, she varies her inflection and phrasing to convey an idea or a feeling. She stretches a note to emphasize a word, sings with varying degrees of roughness, or hits a high note at an unexpected moment to make us pay attention to her point. She stresses certain words while cutting others short; she deviates from the expected melody, offering an element of surprise. Smith teases meaning out of her lyrics, even the pedestrian ones, imbuing them with significance and using them to express her own unique personality and attitude. The individuality of her voice, the content of her lyrics and her style of delivery communicate a new type of womanhood, a modern form of femininity. By turns Smith sounds confident, assertive, vulnerable, self-possessed, independent and complex. The appeal of this persona and the vocal approaches that created it were powerful. Smith's artistry, communicative power and public appeal anticipate that of Beyoncé, a singer whose capacity to articulate the longings, frustrations and passions of African American women with tremendous vocal dexterity and onstage polish are a latter-day manifestation of the Empress of the Blues.
With their focus on intimate relationships, there's a timeless quality to many blues songs, but much of the material recorded in the 1920s was emphatically modern, responding to seismic cultural shifts. These were songs about and for women who were experiencing migration — either moving from rural Southern areas to Southern towns or Northern cities or experiencing the movement of those around them. The departures of lovers and the comings and goings of trains are frequent themes. In some cases Smith offers advice: "Pinchback Blues" (1924), a song that warns women about avoiding entanglements with good-looking, no account men, opens with Smith's spoken word introduction, "Girls, I wanna tell you about these sweet men." At a time when American women of all races and classes were enjoying a considerable degree of personal freedom and mobility, this type of caution was an apt response to the rise of modernity associated with the Jazz Age. Migration brought black women from the countryside to bustling cities where, earning their own money and often free from the surveillance of their families, they could experiment socially and sexually. Smith reminds her listeners to do so with their eyes open. Her catalog also includes observations about contemporary social inequities. In "Washwoman Blues" (1928), Smith sings about the day-to-day drudgery of being a laundress, about wishing for another option — working as a cook would be better, she sings, because she "could eat aplenty." In "Poor Man's Blues" (1928), a song she wrote, she addresses "Mr. Rich Man" and attacks him for being willfully ignorant of the way poor people live: "The working man's wife is starving, your wife is living like a queen," she assails. Smith's songs take seriously the psychic pain of being left by a lover, the urgent desire for sexual attention, and the brutal reality of poverty. Usually, Smith's protagonists demonstrate strength and independence; they are willing to seek other options, even when they don't seem easily available.
Smith's legacy began to take shape during her lifetime, and her sound has influenced some of the most prominent vocalists who followed in her wake. Smith made her final recordings in 1933 with producer John Hammond; three days later, working with Hammond in the same studio, Billie Holiday cut her first record. Over the course of her storied career, Holiday paid tribute to Smith; cited her as a formative influence; recorded "'Taint Nobody's Bizness If I Do," a song associated with Smith; and, most important, adopted Smith's approach to excavating and expressing the meaning of the lyrics she sang through ingenious choices of phrasing and inflection. The Depression and the growing preference for the swinging music of big bands and vocalists like Holiday made the sound of the classic blues women seem passé by the early 1930s, but the sound of Smith's resonant voice and confident attitude reverberate in the popular music of the 20th century, exerting a lasting impact on the vocalists who came after her. When gospel great Mahalia Jackson was a child, she learned to sing by listening to Smith's records, and as a teenager she sang Smith's 1925 hit "St. Louis Blues" at church socials. Once Jackson began recording in the 1940s, her voice was compared to Smith's, even though she only sang sacred music. In 1958, the release of Dinah Washington Sings Bessie Smith and LaVern Baker Sings Bessie Smith indicated a continued interest in the Empress of the Blues two decades after her death. Washington, one of the leading lights of vocal music during the 1950s, and Baker, the first queen of rock and roll, located themselves in a musical lineage that Smith launched. Through their influence on the next generation of vocalists, they kept her sound alive. So did Big Mama Thornton, a blues shouter who had been billed as "Bessie Smith's Younger Sister" on occasion during her touring years in the 1940s. Once she began recording in the early 1950s, her commanding voice and her commitment to the blues carried the imprint of Smith to white rock and rollers Elvis Presley, who covered Thornton's "Hound Dog" in 1956, and Janis Joplin, who covered Thornton's "Ball 'n' Chain" in 1968.
Joplin went right to the source, studying Smith's records and putting what she heard into the recordings she made as a member of Big Brother and the Holding Company and as a solo artist. (In 1970, Joplin also acknowledged her debt to Smith by contributing money to purchase a headstone for Smith's grave, which had been unmarked since her burial in 1937.) During the 1960s and 1970s, it was possible to hear Smith's direct influence on popular music through the work of Chicago-based blues powerhouse Koko Taylor, but singers in other genres also turned to the blues, connecting to one of American popular music's most important sources and finding a liberating mode of expression there. On her 1967 album Nina Simone Sings the Blues, Simone put her spin on "I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl," a double entendre tune that Smith originated as "Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl." That same year, Aretha Franklin served up a forthright enumeration of desire in "Dr. Feelgood," a soulful take on the blues form. She also covered Otis Redding's song "Respect," giving it a double meaning as a demand that men show women respect in love relations and, in step with the tenor of the times, that white Americans treat black Americans with respect. Chaka Khan, the women of Labelle, and Betty Davis, who offered adventurous fusions of soul, funk, and rock in the 1970s, followed in the self-determining footsteps of Smith. Davis infused her recordings with the spirited attitude of blues women and name-checked blues musicians in her songs, drawing on what she learned when listening to her grandmother's blues records as a child. To give a new generation access to this music, in 1970 Columbia Records started the process of reissuing the 160 sides that Smith had recorded over the course of her career; the multivolume set affirmed her significance with the auspicious title Bessie Smith: The World's Greatest Blues Singer.
Even as the sound of popular music drifted away from the blues, Smith's persona, subject matter, forceful vocals and fierce attitude were a presence on recordings released by succeeding generations of musicians. This was especially clear in the 1980s and 1990s, when women of the hip-hop nation such as Queen Latifah, Salt-N-Pepa and TLC showed themselves to be inheritors of Smith's tradition. Their uncompromising attitude and their emphasis on chronicling the everyday aspects of black working-class life offered updated versions of the blues spirit. It is no accident that Queen Latifah, who started the rap on her 1993 track "U.N.I.T.Y." by calling out men who disrespected black women with the confrontational question "Who you calling a 'bitch?' " was tapped to portray Smith in Dee Rees' 2015 biopic Bessie. Queen Latifah's insistence on respect, her majestic demeanor and the reference to royalty in her stage name connect her to Smith, the first queen of African American popular music. Salt-N-Pepa's "Let's Talk About Sex" and TLC's "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg," both released in 1991, opened up musical conversations about sexuality in relation to emotional fulfillment, physical pleasure and sexual health. While the forthright approach of these songs and their direct address to women were in the mode of Smith's songs about the pursuit of sexual pleasure ("Nobody in Town Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine"  and "I'm Wild About That Thing" , for example), they were also very much of their time: The exhortations to insist that male sexual partners use condoms were a response to the AIDS epidemic and part of "safe sex" campaigns that were coming into the mainstream but still controversial. Like Smith in the 1920s, these latter-day artists made the many dimensions of sexual intimacy part of a public conversation.
Smith's voice continues to resonate. The echo of her vocal sound is present in the work of Shemekia Copeland, an accomplished blues singer who has sustained Smith's legacy throughout her career — most recently on her album America's Child (2018). Copeland records with an electric band and has broken from a strict blues form, but she continues Smith's tradition of using her powerful voice to speak the truths of working-class people. Smith's attitude is present in the recordings of the Knowles sisters — in Solange's A Seat at the Table (2016) and Beyoncé's Lemonade (2016) — which offer detailed explorations of the emotional states and personal challenges that each woman is confronting and working through. Beyoncé's "Don't Hurt Yourself," featuring Jack White, is explicitly rooted in the blues and traces one path the music has taken through musical references to the British rock band Led Zeppelin's version of "When the Levee Breaks" (1971) — a song originated in 1929 by one of Smith's contemporaries, the African American blues singer and guitarist Memphis Minnie. Smith's commitment to delving into and experimenting with vocal range and inflection continues in the vocals of singer, songwriter and guitarist Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes. On the albums Boys and Girls (2012) and Sound and Color (2015), Howard takes her voice through its heights and depths to parallel and communicate the emotions referenced in her lyrics.
Nearly a century after Smith started her career as a recording artist, we can take for granted the presence of female singers who are at home laying claim to their needs — romantic and otherwise — and taking their voices to their limits without apology. The roots of these forthright articulations of womanhood were first sounded in the music of the classic blues women, and all of us — the singers and those of us who take pleasure in listening to them — owe a debt to Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues, the woman who, with a gorgeous, powerful voice, boldly sang the blues.
Maureen Mahon, a cultural anthropologist, is an associate professor in the Department of Music at New York University. Her book, Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll, is forthcoming from Duke University Press.