3. All She Needed Was a Chance
The odds were stacked against Bessie Smith when she was born (sometime around April 15,1894). Her father was a Baptist minister, who died shortly after her birth. She lost a few of her siblings and her mother by the time she was nine-years-old. The remaining Smith family scraped by with odd jobs, like Bessie and her younger brothers, who performed on the streets and collected change thrown at them by strangers (University of Virginia).
She continued her musical story by trying out for the Moses Stokes Minstrel Troupe in Chattanooga, and soon after that, she soon began to work closely with the infamous Ma Rainey. She performed at the 81 Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia, as a singer of the chorus line, to a duo with Hazel Green, and finally a solo artist. She was discovered by Columbia Records, and she was finally able to record and sell her very own song in 1923: “Downhearted Blues”. She quickly became the highest paid black female artist by 1924. Her music spoke for and moved the African-American community. Her struggles and her story empathized with the community, and this made it possible to forge a strong bond between Bessie and her audience (University of Virginia).
Exploring Bessie Smith’s Works
Downhearted Blues (1923) — lyrics
Every artist has a song they are most well known for, and “Downhearted Blues” is just that for Bessie Smith. Her career sped up into a greater fame and recognition than ever before, after this record hit the shelves (University of Virginia). Sagee notes from another scholar in the ‘Artistic qualities’ section of the article that Bessie is not at her best in this early recording. Despite this, her unique ability to express the soul of this song made her stand out (Sagee, 2007). There are subtle decrescendos and crescendos of phrases, along with charming staccatos (e.g. third stanza — “…I’ve had it…”) to emphasize parts of the melody.
Bessie Smith went through a bit of heartbreak in her first marriage to Jack Gee (wed in 1923 in fact), who had countless mistresses, and the marriage did not end on the best of terms. It’s possible she reflected her own sorrows into this song, and one can feel it especially through the lyrics.
“I got the world in a jug, the stopper’s in my hand,” it states in the last stanza. I searched for the meaning of this phrase, and I came upon Douglas’ article. She states, “The fact that one could cork the big world in a small jug suggested the power of the weak to subdue the strong” (2012). I believe, Bessie sings of a power and/or control that she holds over the situation with her man, because the song ends with one final but powerful line, “I’m going to hold it until you didn’t come under my command.”
St. Louis Blues (1925) — lyrics
W.C. Handy composed “St. Louis Blues” and finally published the song through his own company in 1914. However, it did not get the recognition it deserved without Bessie Smith’s powerful vocals, which really brought it to life. The song is in a minor key, compared to the other blues’ songs at the time, which were often in a major key, despite their mournful tunes (Beviglia, 2015).
The song tells a story of a woman, who has lost her man to another woman. Bessie’s voice starts it off with a sorrowful and longing line: “I hate to see de evenin’ sun go down”, which the band then repeats the melody before she continues to sing. Her acting, where she sways in an intoxicated state, adds to the realistic scene of a small club. It may be due to the slow tempo or her unique accent, but the articulation of the words seem slightly slurred as well, which further reflects the pain of the woman who is drinking her sorrows away.
As one could notice from this particular recording, she is never overpowered by the other instruments or singers and allows the story to be told by Bessie and no one else. There is a hint of ‘call and response’ influence in this rendition with the chorus repeating/supporting her lines. There is an incorporation of ‘shouts’ as well (e.g. 0:15–0:19).
The following diagram from the University of Virginia’s ‘The History of Jazz’ website shows the breakdown of the song’s form:
The breakdown shows how Handy (the composer) did not stick to the conventional blues format. He tried to compose for a greater audience by incorporating modern formats (Beviglia, 2015).
Beviglia, Jim. “Behind The Song: Bessie Smith, “St. Louis Blues” « American Songwriter.” American Songwriter, 24 June 2015. Web. 21 June 2017. <https://americansongwriter.com/2015/06/behind-song-bessie-smith-st-louis-blues/>.
Douglas, Kelly Brown. “Having the World “in a Jug with the Stopper in Your Hand” by Kelly Brown Douglas.”Feminismandreligion.com. N.p., 20 Nov. 2012. Web. 21 June 2017. <https://feminismandreligion.com/2012/11/20/having-the-world-in-a-jug-with-the-stopper-in-your-hand-by-kelly-brown-douglas/>.
“Empress of the Blues — The Bessie Smith Story.” American Studies. University of Virginia, n.d. Web. 21 June 2017. <http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ug97/blues/bsa.html>.
Sagee, Alona. “Bessie Smith: ‘Down Hearted Blues’ and ‘Gulf Coast Blues’ Revisited.” Popular Music 26.1 (2007): 117–27. JSTOR. Web. 21 June 2017.