Skip to Main Content

Bessie Smith's Legacy: Blues Special Topic

Bessie Smith's Legacy

The Empress of the Blues

She was big and brown and built high off the ground — "a hell of a woman," men called her, but most women said she was "rough." And while there were other blues singers in the first half of the 20th century — some who shared her surname — none could be mistaken for Bessie Smith. Not Mamie Smith or Clara or Trixie or Ruby or Laura.

None of the others could sing with her combination of field holler and Jazz Age sophistication. None could throw her voice from the stage — without a microphone — and make a balcony seat feel like the front row. None made such an artistic impression on her contemporaries in jazz, or her disciples in rock 'n' roll. That's because she was the "Empress of the Blues" — and empress is, by definition, a solo gig.

What came out of Smith onstage grabbed people by the lapels and shook them up — not because she was new and different, but rather because she was so powerfully familiar. She sang about the kind of trouble that most people knew well, and her shouts and lamentations identified a depth of feeling that nearly everyone experiences, but would be hard-pressed to describe. Continue reading from NPR

Janis Joplin Gifts Posthumous Headstone

PHILADELPHIA, Aug. 8 1970 (AP) —Janis Joplin, the blues‐rock singer, and Juanita Green, a registered nurse from Philadelphia shared the cost of a stone for the “Empress of the Blues,” whose grave lay un marked for more than 30 years.

A gray‐black stone was un veiled yesterday on the grave of Bessie Smith, who died in an auto accident in 1937. Only grass had marked her grave in Mount Lawn Cemetery in near by Sharon Hill because her ‘family did not have enough money to buy a tombstone for her.'

Miss Joplin and Juanita Green, who met Bessie Smith at the old Lincoln Theater in the 1930's here, donated the stone after a woman had written to The Philadelphia Inquirer's Action Line asking about the un marked grave.

About 50 admirers gathered at the graveside for the dedication of the stone, inscribed with the words, “The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing—Bessie Smith‐1895‐1937.” Continue reading from NY Times

Romare Bearden's Immortal Reflection Of Bessie Smith

In 1974, the artist Romare Bearden made a collage with a woman at its center. One arm bent above her head, yellow flowers in her hair to match her skirt and heels, she casually yet clearly commands an orchestra of men. The image, titled Empress of the Blues, paid homage to Bessie Smith, and it captured Smith's ability to rule the glamorous stages of Jazz Age Harlem no less than the juke joints and tent shows of the rural South. But on another level, Bearden's creation of this collage in the 1970s also reflected Smith's commanding afterlife, the sway she still held over black artists several decades after her death.

While Smith was among the most famous and highly paid black entertainers of her day, that status alone does not explain her impact on Bearden, who included her in several collages, or over the many other African American artists who cited Smith's influence on their work. Richard Wright and James Baldwin both credited Smith with attuning to the logic of the blues and to the music of black speech. Billie Holiday and Mahalia Jackson both expressed their debts to her, although they used her example to forge very different aesthetics. Smith became a polarizing figure in Amiri Baraka's 1964 play Dutchman, where a black man tells a white femme fatale, "If Bessie Smith had killed some white people, she wouldn't have needed [her] music." The poet and critic Sherley Anne Williams published a long poem devoted to Smith in 1982. The black Scottish writer Jackie Kay wrote her own Smith-inspired book-length meditation on art and identity in 1997. Continue reading from NPR