The Larger than Life Legend of the Regal Blueswoman

People who say Bessie Smith would have said, “I went to see the Empress,” and everybody would have known who they were talking about.

The Larger than Life Legend of the Regal Blueswoman

The fact that we ever got to hear any of the classic blues singers at all is a total historical accident. Mamie Smith was the first to record a blues song, “Crazy Blues.” The Okeh Record Company were trying to find Sophie Tucker to record some songs. Her voice was mellow and she was white, but they couldn’t contact her, so they decided to take a risk with Mamie Smith, a black vaudeville singer who didn’t have half of Bessie’s on-the-road followers. The first record Mamie Smith made with the Okeh label was not a blues. But for the second, her gutsy manager, Perry Bradford, persuaded the Okeh company to let her sing the blues backed by a black band. The result was “Crazy Blues,” which was cut on August 10, 1920. It was a huge hit, selling over a hundred thousand copies during the first month of its release. Little business sat up and wanted to be big business.

The blueswomen had taken the blues from backrooms in backstreets first onto the stage, and now onto the record.

Image:Penguin Random House

The blues were changed by the blueswomen, no longer a folk music sung by folk in the fields, calling and responding to one another while they worked, or while the sun set, folk who wore poor country suits that hadn’t been made for them, or vests with holes in them. We have all seen the pictures. In fact, the picture has come back recently in stereotyped romanticization of the old bluesmen. Now they are being used to sell beer in television and cinema ads, sitting on that sepia porch with the bad-fitting brown suits to sell a bottle of beer. These old bluesmen are considered the genuine article while the women are fancy dress. The poorer the bluesman looks on that run-down porch, the more authentic his blues. The image of the blueswomen is the exact opposite of the bluesmen. There they are in all their splendor and finery, their feathers and ostrich plumes and pearls, theatrical smiles, theatrical shawls, dressed up to the nines and singing about the jail house. The blueswomen are never seen wearing white vests or poor dresses, sitting on a porch in some small Southern town. No, they are right out there on that big stage, prima donnas, barrelhousing, shouting, strutting their stuff. They are all theatre. This combination of theatre and truth is at the heart of the blueswomen. They might be dressed up as divas, queens, and empresses, but they are still telling it like it is. The audience never doubts the truth of the humor or the truth of the sadness, as Sally Placksin writes:

Women shouted recognition when the singer told about the way her man mistreated her, they shouted confirmation when Bessie Smith sang her ‘Young Woman’s Blues’ or when Ma Rainey majestically dumped her man in ‘Titanic Man Blues’. Some nights the shouts turned into silence as the congregations sat spellbound in the mystical presence of Ma Rainey or ‘Miss Bessie.’ Like all artists, musicians, actors and show people in those years, the blues women were considered by many, even in the black community, the ‘lowest of the low’.

It is all there in the blues: believable and fanciful at the same time. The opposite of social realism. Realism with a string of pearls thrown in. Grimy life with fancy feathers. Poverty and pain with a horsehair wig. These blues sisters of Bessie Smith all knew how to dress, how to reach out to a full audience and let the blues rip.

The “classic” blues singers followed in the royal footsteps of the Voodoo Queens and they signaled the emergence of a new type of record. They even gave themselves royal names: Clara Smith was “Queen of the Moaners”; Bessie Smith was the “Empress of the Blues”; Mamie Smith was the “Queen of the Blues”; Ida Cox was the “Uncrowned Queen of the Blues”; Ma Rainey was the “Golden Necklace of the Blues” as well as being the “Songbird of the South” and “Mother of the Blues.” (Ma Rainey’s famous necklace was made from gold coins of different sizes, from $2.50 pieces to heavy twenty-dollar eagles. She often kept her necklace in bed with her in case of theft.) These names were used in the billings for the concerts through the South, but they were also used by the people, the blues admirers, and fans. Columbia may have promoted Bessie Smith as “Queen of the Blues,” but it was the people who called her “Empress,” the people who traveled all over to get to hear those women sing their blues. The people who crowded the streets and were moved on by the police in the heyday of the blueswomen, when hundreds were left waiting outside. Those people would have said, “I went to see the Empress,” and everybody would have known who they were talking about. The classic blues singers were the first and only American black royal family. Ruby Walker said:

Bessie was a queen. I mean, the people looked up to her and worshipped her like she was a queen. You know, she would walk into a room or out on a stage and people couldn’t help but notice her – she was that kind of woman, a strong, beautiful woman with a personality as big as a house.

All things are possible: the poor girl from Chattanooga can put on a silk gown and transform herself into an empress; she can wear a lampshade-fringe crown. There is the perception, on the one hand, of the blues as lowlife (the view of middle-class jazz fans and critics) and on the other hand, the blues as high life, royalty (for classic blues singers and their fans). This combination can’t be bettered: the result is a black working-class queen. No ordinary queen who has inherited somebody else’s lineage quite by chance, but a diva with style, daring, panache, imagination, and talent. A queen who knows how to shimmy. A queen who can send herself up. A queen who can holler and shout. A queen who knows what it is all about. A Queen of Tragedy; a Queen of Bad Men; a Queen of Poverty; a Queen of the Jail House. A queen who understands and has been through herself everything that other ordinary people, particularly ordinary women, have been through. A Queen of the Folk. No wonder the classic Bessie Smith and the other Blues Queens were so loved.

The touch of class, artistry, and imagination that went into the look and style of the classic blues singers is often devalued or misunderstood, Alan Lomax writes:

With few exceptions, only women in show business, women of questionable reputation, women who flaunted their loose living, publicly performed the blues – women like Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie. The list isn’t very long. These female blues singers toured the black vaudeville circuits or performed in city nightclubs . . . They did not sing in the street or play in jukes and barrooms, where they would inevitably be subjected to sexual advances of every sort . . .

Many people perceived the blueswomen to be vulgar, crude, lewd, common, rough, raucous, lowlife. The subject matter of the songs, the double entendres, the kitchen man, the butcher man, and the jelly roll didn’t help the image either. There is lots of “rough” in the songs of the classic blues singers. Songs like Alberta Hunter’s “I Want a Two-fisted, Double-jointed, Rough-and-ready Man”; Ida Cox’s “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues”; Ma Rainey’s “Rough and Tumble Blues”; Victoria Spivey’s “I Got Men All Over This Town”; Bessie Smith’s “Dirty No-Gooder Blues.” The classic blues singers took men as their central subject and wrote songs about what swines they were, how they cheated, lied, deceived, and beat you up. Men in women’s blues songs do not look good; they do not look good at all. The odd good man has got to be held on to at all costs because the blueswomen recognize what a rarity he is—“Don’t Fish in My Sea.” In sending men up, mocking and deriding them, the classic blues singers were revolutionary. They took control of their own image, and their songs relentlessly told the truth about no-good men.

From BESSIE SMITH: A Poet’s Biography of a Blues Legend by Jackie Kay. Reprinted by permission of Vintage Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 1997, 2021 by Jackie Kay.

JACKIE KAY is the author of the memoir Red Dust Road as well as several critically acclaimed poetry collections—including The Adoption Papers (winner of the Scottish Arts Council Book Award), Off Colour (shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize), and Life Mask (a Poetry Book Society Recommendation)—almost all of which were collected in Darling: New & Selected Poems. Her first novel, Trumpet, won the Guardian Fiction Prize and was shortlisted for International Dublin Literary Award. A former National Poet of Scotland, she has also written several plays and children’s books. She lives in Manchester, England.

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