How Bessie Smith Influenced A Century Of Popular Music Bessie 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.

How Bessie Smith Influenced A Century Of Popular Music

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Who gets credit for creating rock 'n' roll? Is it the flashy Chuck Berry?


CHUCK BERRY: (Singing) Go. Go. Go, Johnny, go. go.

SHAPIRO: Or maybe rockabilly stars like Bill Haley & His Comets?


BILL HALEY & HIS COMETS: (Singing) We're gonna rock around the clock tonight. We're gonna rock, rock, rock till broad daylight.

SHAPIRO: Or does rock 'n' roll owe a debt to lesser-known musical predecessors, specifically black women blues singers of the 1920s?

For the last few years, NPR has been reinterpreting the history of American music by putting women front and center. The series is called Turning The Tables. This season, we're looking at the women of the early 20th century who created modern popular music. Today - the blues singer, Bessie Smith. She launched her recording career in the early 1920s and spent more than a decade touring the South with other black musicians. She died in a car accident in 1937.

Cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon makes the case that Bessie Smith laid the foundations for rock 'n' roll.

MAUREEN MAHON: The first song she recorded was called "Down Hearted Blues."


BESSIE SMITH: (Singing) Gee, but it's hard to love someone.

MAHON: She is singing about love not working out. She feels downhearted because the man left her. He didn't treat her well. You hear in her voice the pain and the frustration.


SMITH: (Singing) I'm so disgusted, heartbroken too. I've got those downhearted blues.

MAHON: But by end of the song, you hear something different. You hear her asserting herself and insisting to herself that going forward, she's not going to take mistreatment anymore.


SMITH: (Singing) I got the world in a jug. The stopper's in my hand.

SHAPIRO: How unusual was it for women to sing so frankly and openly about love and sex in the 1920s?

MAHON: It was new. It's part of what made the music modern. Certainly, women may have been singing about this before, but now we're hearing it recorded. And once it's recorded, it can circulate. And so that was something that really stood out about the blues.

SHAPIRO: Now as we mentioned, she died young in 1937, and that is more than a decade before the first inklings of rock 'n' roll. So you're making the argument that she, basically, laid the foundation that rock 'n' roll was built on. Where do you hear that?

MAHON: So I hear a linkage - a very clear linkage between Bessie Smith and a singer named Big Mama Thornton, who toured in the 1940s on a circuit similar to the one that Bessie Smith toured on. And she toured under the name Bessie Smith's younger sister some of the time. She wasn't really Bessie Smith's younger sister, but she had a sound that evoked Bessie Smith.

SHAPIRO: Let's listen to these two women back-to-back. First, Bessie Smith. Here she is singing "Black Water Blues."


SMITH: (Singing) When it rains five days and the skies turn dark as night.

SHAPIRO: And now let's listen to Big Mama Thornton. This is "Hound Dog."


BIG MAMA THORNTON: (Singing) You ain't nothing but a hound dog.

SHAPIRO: And that gets us right to Elvis, doesn't it? (Laughter).

MAHON: It does. It was three years after the original release of Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog" in 1953 before Elvis Presley recorded his version of "Hound Dog." And his version is the one that most people are familiar with. But he took some ideas - and I would say a lot of attitude - from Big Mama Thornton.


THORNTON: (Singing) Yes, you told me you was high-class, but I can see through that.

SHAPIRO: A lot has been said about Elvis taking musical stylings from black performers. You're saying it wasn't just black performers generally. It was these women specifically.

MAHON: I think it's very specific in the case of this song, but it was also a general interest in African American music that Elvis Presley had. And he really studied this music. He listened to the records over and over again, and he changed or he adjusted the way that he sang to approximate what these African American singers were doing. And most of the singers that he was listening to were blues singers. And all of that music ties back to what Bessie Smith was doing in the 1920s, recording that music for the first time.

SHAPIRO: Give us another example. Where in the early days of rock 'n' roll do you hear echoes of Bessie Smith?

MAHON: I think the other obvious or sort of immediate example would be - again through Big Mama Thornton, again channeling Bessie Smith in a lot of ways - and her link to Janis Joplin.


JANIS JOPLIN: (Singing) And I say, oh, whoa, whoa. Tell me why. Why does every single, little (unintelligible) everything hold on.

MAHON: Big Mama Thornton had recorded the song "Ball And Chain" in the early 1960s, but it was never released. So it was a song that she was singing in the blues clubs of the Bay Area in California, and Janis Joplin heard her singing the song. And she actually asked Big Mama permission to sing and record the song.

SHAPIRO: So it was really explicit.

MAHON: It was very explicit. And Janis Joplin, on a couple of occasions, invited Big Mama Thornton to perform with the band as an opening act.

SHAPIRO: What a show (laughter).

MAHON: It gives an indication of a couple things. One - it gives an indication of how sincerely Janis Joplin understood her debt to African American musicians.


MAHON: The fact that Big Mama Thornton was the opening act gives us an idea of the position that African American musicians have occupied - pioneers but in this sort of secondary space while white artists doing their music get the spotlight.


SHAPIRO: So much of the story of early rock 'n' roll is a story of men, at least as we are told it, whether that's Elvis or Chuck Berry. Why do you think the women whose backs this was built on - whether that's Big Mama Thornton or Bessie Smith - are not written into the narrative in the same way?

MAHON: Well, I suppose there are a lot of reasons. We might oversimplify and say it might be because the first people to write the history of the music were men, and they were more focused on men. I think there's also a tendency to emphasize instrumentalists, especially in rock 'n' roll, a focus on guitars and guitarists. And the women who were involved in the music were primarily involved and innovating in their vocals. And the vocal part of rock 'n' roll is really important, but it has just never received as much attention.


SMITH: (Singing) Let me tell you, girl, that your man ain't treating you right.

MAHON: I think for the singers - the people who are in rock 'n' roll who are singing - those women are very important. And if you look at the history of rock 'n' roll, you see numerous examples of male singers turning to women singers as models. Prior to rock 'n' roll history, you have the example of Frank Sinatra turning to Billie Holiday as a model. And of course, Billie Holiday always named Bessie Smith as one of her key influences. So I think we can go beyond rock 'n' roll to see the influence and to hear the influence of Bessie Smith on American popular music.

SHAPIRO: Maureen Mahon is an associate professor in the department of music at NYU and author of a forthcoming book, "Black Diamond Queens: African American Women And Rock And Roll." You can read her essay for Turning The Tables at NPR Music.

Thanks a lot.

MAHON: Thank you, Ari.


SMITH: (Singing) Sing them. Sing them. Sing me them blues. Let me convert your soul.

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