From The Tent Show To The Parlor: Bessie Smith's Travels In Her Time

Aug 6, 2019
Originally published on October 10, 2019 8:28 am

It was a hot show that night, in that big tent out in the muddy field. Everybody had fun, though most people were tired; it was the end of a long T.O.B.A. circuit tour for the acts and of a long day of work for the people who had come to see them. But when the time came for the last act, everyone, including the other performers, was ready to hear Bessie, to turn that sweaty tent into the church of the blues. Everyone hollered as Bessie strutted onto the stage, dressed big, feathery and bright, and they didn't stop until she started singing.

Bessie's voice was elemental, a force set free from deep inside the world. It was a voice strong enough to hold all the blood, sweat and tears they'd shed for generations. Together, there in the muddy field, they reclaimed those blood, sweat and tears to the songs of their ownselves, for a time setting the frequency of a freedom independent of whatever the white folks got up to. "Everybody gets the blues," blues singers would later tell customers who bought their records, came to their shows or picked up guitars to sound like them. But anyone in the tent that night, or at a theater in the city to catch Bessie close a show, or at a rent party gathered around the record player to hear Bessie sing, knew this was a lie.

No one could sound like her, but she was not singular. People needed what was unique in her voice, but they loved her blues for its familiarity. The blues was never meant to be original; everyone knew the words of the songs, for many had no author, they were made to be shared, mixed, added to, adapted, simple to remember and pass along. And Bessie could wrap the blues around anything. She could take the worst of that Tin Pan Alley stuff and bend it into notes you were both hearing for the first time, and had heard forever.

Bessie's voice held their long memory. Take "Backwater Blues" for example, which Bessie wrote and recorded in 1927. It is about a flood; which flood didn't matter, it was all of them. It was about the breaking of the levees and the terror that followed, past, present and future. It was about Hurricane Katrina, about living in the lowlands, the bottoms, the cut, where the roads lost their pavement. She wrote the song just after the December 1926 flood of the Cumberland River in Nashville, Tenn., near enough to Chattanooga, where she grew up. When the flood came, black people of the lowlands were herded to the auditorium, and dubbed "refugees." Then in April 1927 came the great flood of the Mississippi River, which they all had expected for a long time, as the levees were weak and old. When they broke, thousands lost their homes and their neighborhoods. Police corralled them into camps, and forced them to work on the levees at gunpoint. And thousands of people died.

Well it rained five days and the sky turned dark as night
Well it rained five days and the sky turned dark as night
There's trouble takin' place in the lowlands at night

I woke up this mornin', can't even get out of my door
I woke up this mornin', can't even get out of my door
There's enough trouble to make a poor girl wonder where she wanna go

Then they rowed a little boat about five miles cross the pond
Then they rowed a little boat about five miles cross the pond
I packed all my clothes, throwed 'em in and they rowed me along

When it thunders and lightnin' and the wind begins to blow
When it thunders and lightnin' and the wind begins to blow
There's thousands of people ain't got no place to go

And I went and stood up on some high old lonesome hill
And I went and stood up on some high old lonesome hill
Then looked down on the house were I used to live

Backwater blues done called me to pack my things and go
Backwater blues done called me to pack my things and go
'Cause my house fell down and I can't live there no more

Mmm, I can't move no more
Mmm, I can't move no more
There ain't no place for a poor old girl to go

Home is a complicated place for black people. It is where you have to get away from and where you desperately miss. Where you from? Black people ask each other, and it's an important and historic question. You might find a cousin, or someone who knew your daddy back "home," before everyone was separated, forced to leave, or left to find work, or left just to feel free. Moving, traveling, sometimes meant freedom, and sometimes meant you had nowhere to go but had to leave anyway. Bessie's voice carried what it meant to live in such a state of permanent dislocation. Her voice was a place to land if only for a night, a place for black people to breathe a common breath.

Pain, suffering and the violence of poverty were constant realities, but Bessie and them insisted on making joy and pleasure, in good company and bad. They didn't have to steal away for it, they made it right where they were, blessedly free of middle class do's and don'ts. She sang of love, sex and seduction with both men and women, for she loved who and how she wanted. She boasted about her conquests and cried about her broken heart. Remembering Bessie and many other blues women is queer women's history. Their lives set a precedent for the politics of gender nonconformity and sexual fluidity considered so novel today. Bessie claimed the right to live fully, with every part of herself, and with her voice rich and bursting, she declared the right for everyone in that room to do the same.

Blues was made on the road, and is as urban as it is rural. It was made wherever black people were, in the countryside, in cities and small towns, and circulated with their restless criss-crossing between them. Women brought the blues voice to the variety stage circuits, as men were expected to play the instruments while women were told they had to sing and dance. Bessie got her start in her hometown at a club called 81. She joined the legendary Ma Rainey for a while as a dancer, though it's a myth that Rainey trained her. Everybody trained everybody on the road. Bessie was soon traveling with her own troupe, basing herself first in Philadelphia and then New York City, where she would press her legendary recordings.

These records meant more than music to the black people newly migrated to the urban center. But white people were listening too. Monied white cosmopolitans of Manhattan had been incorporating black music and culture since forever, but a new phase of interest surged, as the influx of black people migrating to the city were making Harlem a black cultural capital. I can just imagine a party at the house of Carl Van Vechten, cultural curator and impresario to the Harlem Renaissance. As at all his parties, everyone who was anyone would be there. That night Van Vechten has invited Bessie as a special guest. Of course she would sing for them. They were fascinated by the elusive, unexplainable quality carried in her voice. This they either missed or misheard; they called it an example of the natural musicality of the coarse, primitive negro and the true spirit of the folk. I imagine Bessie there, getting drunk and enjoying herself. "What a bunch of ofays," Bessie would say, as she picked up another glass of champagne.

Even as they were equally drawn to Bessie's voice, many middle class black people, like W.E.B. DuBois and Harlem Renaissance architect Alaine Locke, were also jumpy about the funk-filled blues and dirty jazz black people were bringing with them as they migrated from the South. To these well-heeled, starched representatives of the race, Bessie was a troubling vulgarity — too coarse, too bright, too direct, too sexy. Poets, fine artists, sculptors, classical music were okay, but the shit from the jook joints and tent shows of the South made them feel too raw; it was too close to what they were struggling to get away from, and it exposed their own class performance. But other young black artists and intellectuals, like the poet Langston Hughes and the anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, understood, finding strange bedfellows with the white elites at Van Vechten's parties. They felt the power Bessie sang with as well as the compromises it took to honor it.

The idea of the folk was key to the ways black intellectuals and artists were defining themselves anew. Folk culture was meant to hold the true heart of the race, its authenticity and true forms of expression. During and after the Depression, the idea of the folk took on a new importance. Folklorists went South, with the aim of preserving the vanishing culture of the agricultural South. They were in search of a kind of rural authenticity; the true folk were rustic, poor, simple and tied to the land. The women who recorded in the 1920s, in their feathers and finery, were too citified, too self-aware, too independent to be considered true representatives of blues culture. Their art, so the logic goes, was compromised by its time in the city and its translation to wax. The work of the blues women was thereafter dubbed "classic blues," and Bessie was relegated to a different era. The rightful carriers of folk culture were thereafter the blues men, "found" and curated by white folklorists like John and Alan Lomax. But authenticity is a tricky thing. Later male artists fashioned themselves with such an audience in mind; the Delta blues was the work of male musicians melding together music from many regions, partly with an eye to selling their records to excited collectors. Robert Johnson became the benchmark of authenticity, the symbol of black melancholy, a safely rural figure, roaming the countryside with just a guitar over his shoulder.

Feminist musicologists, cultural historians and critics in the 1980s and 1990s protested this male version of history, and worked to recover the artistic presence of women who sang the blues. This recovery was not just about including them in an existing historical framework (women were there too!) It fundamentally changed how we understand the history of the blues — who performed it when, and how and where it circulated. Once you hear it, Bessie's deep, resonant voice will travel with you always.


Jayna Brown is a Professor in the Media Studies Department at Pratt Institute. Her first book is Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern and her second, Black Utopias: Speculative Life and the Music of Other Worlds, will be out next year.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.