A Tribute to Womanhood

Welcome to "I Am Woman"...a tribute to all those women who had the courage and perseverance to stand up and fight for their rights. Thanks to those who came before us we enjoy a freedom unknown to women not too long ago. But, sadly, in many parts of the world, women continue to be repressed. In fact, even in this country there are women living today under the threat of violence...completely controlled by a violent spouse. Some may make it; others won't. Hopefully, one day ALL women will be free. May that day come soon.


Bessie Smith

She was born April 15, 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennesee, the eighth child of a poor black family. She was raised in poverty and just as the other blacks of her time, subject to the cruel restrictions of segregation. Her father was a Baptist minister. Her mother died when she was eight and her dad when she was only nine.  Orphaned and being raised by an older sister, Bessie's music career began when she was nine years old when she began singing and dancing on street corners for pennies. 

Her professional career began when she was twelve; her brother had arranged an audition for her with a travelling show where Bessie developed a friendship with Ma Rainey who soon became Bessie's mentor. Over the next few years, Bessie's abilities propelled her forward, and by 1918, she was already a seasoned performer and a favorite on the theater circuit.  By the 1920's, her reputation as a singer had spread along the Eastern seaboard, and in 1923, she signed with Columbia Records, a major breakthrough for this poor orphan from the south...and from 1923 to 1931, she launched no less than 160 recordings which propelled her to immortality.

In 1925, Bessie purchased a customized railroad car for herself and her troupe and travelled with her own show...commanding a weekly salarly of $2,000.  Throughout the remainder of the 1920's, Bessie maintained an active schedule of touring and recording, and although she performed primarily to black audiences, she did find popularity among the whites as well.  Among her most successful songs was "Jailhouse Blues", "Cold in Hand Blues", and a version of Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band."   Most of her songs had themes of poverty or unrequited love and her rich voice was perfect, striking a chord into the heart of her listeners.

But, by the end of the 1920's, Bessie's career fell in sharp decline. The Depression and talking movies was crippling vaudeville, and tastes in music were changing (blues were out of fashion), and Bessie's long-standing alcoholism, as well as mismanagement of her affairs, paved the way for her downfall.  Bessie had begun drinking in her teens, and throughout the years, began to drink excessively...making her very difficult to work with.  

Her last recording session, which was billed as a comeback, was mostly a sentimental gesture by one of her producers.  Then, in 1935, she appeared to great acclaim at New York's Apollo Theater.  And by 1937, Bessie was in the process of a comeback, but she died on September 26, 1937, when she was critically injured while on her way to a singing engagement.  Bessie's car, driven at a high rate of speed by her boyfriend, crashed into a truck on a road in Mississippi.  The circumstances of her death remain unknown.  Some say she died because she was refused admission into an all-white facility; others say she was treated and died hours later; and others say she died upon impact. 
She is buried at Mount Lawn Cemetary in Pennsylvania. Her grave remained unmarked until Janis Joplin and Juanita Green, daughter of a former employee of Bessie, gave her a gravestone on August 7, 1970.   

1 comment:

  1. Sorry I'm not here more...again. Dealing with dad's stuff..
    But what a great story this is. I love listening to Billie Holiday but never knew of Bessie. Sad ending to a great voice. Thanks for keeping these stories going Mary...