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. . . Welcome to the Bessie Smith Homepage . . . Bessie Smith: A Defining Voice of the Harlem Renaissance . . .

Beginnings | Talent and Troubles | The Harlem Renaissance and Her Legacy| Analysis of "Down Hearted Blues"| Links | Works Cited

BEGINNINGS

     “Bessie Smith was a rough, crude, violent woman” (BS 1). Yet it was this woman who helped create the fusion of southern blues and northern jazz during the time period known as the Harlem Renaissance. Although the actual date is unknown, Smith was born sometime around 1898 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Her singing career began early with her first public appearance at age nine, performing mainly gospel and spiritual songs. It was not until she joined the “Rabbit Foot Minstrels”, a traveling performance group, that she was exposed to the blossoming genre of the blues.  Traversing the south with the “classic” blues singer ‘Ma’ Rainey, Smith learned the in’s and out’s of show business and prepared herself for the career to which she would dedicate herself for the rest of her life (Hadlock 219). Progressing to the vaudeville stage, Smith’s popularity grew tremendously throughout the early 1920’s, yet she was still mainly unknown to the general public. 

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TALENT AND TROUBLES

In 1923, she recorded the first of her studio sessions for Columbia Records, laying down the tracks “Gulf Coast Blues” and “Down Hearted Blues”, thus beginning her rise to fame (BS 1). Her style was described as “earthy”, and steeped in the bluesy traditions of her mentor. “Bessie’s winning style, made beautiful by a sonorous, deep-chested but perfectly controlled voice, came straight from Ma Rainey” (Hadlock 219). With her acclaim and successes came hardships and abuse, however, yet they were troubles to which Smith responded to explosively. She was known for her short temper and belligerent personality, often not beyond attempting murder when consumed in a rage. On one occasion, Smith took several shots at her adulterous husband with his own handgun after discovering his affair with one of her chorus girls, only after picking up and throwing the girl in question from a train. Interestingly enough, it was common knowledge that Smith herself was frequently engaged in some type of relationship with one of her chorus girls, yet always unpublicized for fear of damaging record sales (Reflections 1). 

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THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE AND HER LEGACY

Her record sales did not fail, however, and Smith forged ahead in bridging the gap between blues and jazz. Her strong, bluesy voice carried beautifully over the jazzy arrangements written by her New York musicians, often men working just to sustain themselves (Hadlock 236). They were the musical engines of the Harlem Renaissance, driving the new African-American sound of jazz to the public through clubs and bars condensed within the New York area. Smith pounced on their groundbreaking sound and infused it with her southern blues style, thus bringing the blues, and subsequently jazz, into the mainstream of American culture. Bessie Smith’s death was a slow and tragic one, and the life of one of America’s most important musical contributors was cut short one fall evening in 1936. Badly wounded in a car accident in Mississippi, Smith bled to death en route to a “black” hospital despite the relative proximity of a hospital reserved for whites (BS 2). Her “magnificent voice and direct approach to the blues left their mark on almost every singer…who ever heard her in person or on records”, and remains one of the defining voices of the Harlem Renaissance (Hadlock 236).

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  ANALYSIS OF "DOWNHEARTED BLUES"      

  “Downhearted Blues” is one of the earliest and most definitive songs of Bessie Smith’s career, displaying both her power and soulful musical presence. Her voice is almost haunting, filling every moment of the song; even when she is not singing it echoes in the mind of the listener. “Downhearted Blues” never seems empty or thin even though she is accompanied solely by the pianist Clarence Williams. “A pedestrian pianist, he appears to have played scarcely a note beyond those written on the sheet music before him, but that does not keep Bessie from giving a superb, definitive reading of the song” (Albertson 30). Although it was her first experience in a recording studio, Smith exhibits only assurance and confidence, letting her voice transcend to an almost inhuman level. The basic structure of the song is simple and repetitive, a common trademark of the blues. Melody is carried by Smith’s tremendous voice, while the piano sets a solid, almost percussive foundation of harmony. Although the scales are undeniably blues scales, Smith swings in and out of the beat in a syncopated groove that can only be described as jazz. Like nowhere else is the fusion of jazz and blues more present than in “Downhearted Blues”, in everything from the tone of Williams’ piano to the robust but seductive strength in Smith’s voice. “Bessie delivers the song with authority and just the right amount of pathos; even when she is pouring out her woes it is with an edge of magnificent defiance” (Albertson 30). It is this “magnificent defiance” that made Bessie Smith the indelible character of the Harlem Renaissance that she was, and “Downhearted Blues” the momentous recording it was remembered as.

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LINKS

Bessie Smith - All Music Guide

Bessie Smith Bio from "Jazz - A Film by Ken Burns"

Sample Bessie Smith Music and More @ Artist Direct

Red Hot Jazz

Learn More about the Harlem Renaissance!

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WORKS CITED  

Albertson, Chris. Bessie Smith: Biography and Notes on the Music. USA: Time Life Books, 1982. 

“Bessie Smith” (1). http://www.redhotjazz.com/bessie.html 17 Jan 2003 

“Bessie Smith” (2). http://www.uic.edu/depts/quic/history/bessie_smith.html 17 Jan 2003 

Hadlock, Richard. Jazz Masters of the 20’s. New York, NY: The Macmillion Company, 1965. 

“Reflections of 1920’s and 30’s Street Life In The Music Of Bessie Smith”

    http://www.blusnet.hub.org/readings/bessie.html 17 Jan 2003

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