The great Studs Terkel, a beloved Chicago radio DJ, writer, and man-about-town, described Bessie Smith's voice and music in glowing terms:
"She sang of the life about her, of the hard lot of her people. Songs she had picked up from street singers, who wandered from town to town. From old women, rocking on the porches of broken-down shacks, moaning of a lost girlhood. From bitter men, whose voices wafted through the open doors of cheap saloons, she heard harsh words and sad refrains. These songs were called the blues" (Giants of Jazz, 33).
As we can see from this quote, Studs imagined a colorful and tough past for Smith, that dominant blues star who had brilliant control over tone, feeling, and the all-important blue note. Out of her hard life, Studs imagines, came a grinding, soaring voice, a voice that pierced to the depths of human sadness and gathered together the misery of street singers and old women on porches, motherless children and abandoned wives. The Bessie Smith he imagines is a sort of collective figure, a representative of a deep and often torturous history of African-Americans under slavery and Jim Crow.
The Bessie Smith he imagines is also a collective figure representing the origins of the blues as a musical style. A supremely American form, the blues emerged after Reconstruction as a melding of African spirituals, slave songs, and other popular and folk strains. The tradition was uniquely southern and uniquely black. It has also been described as African-American folk music, a music of the people that eventually took firm roots in the entire culture. In popular culture, and in Terkel's re-telling, Bessie Smith is one of the early queens of the form, who emerged a poor orphan from the outskirts of Chattanooga Tennessee to become a star of her time. The kind of blues she sang came to be called the "classic blues."
Bessie Smith's Early Life
Everything that Terkel suggests is basically true. Bessie Smith was born in the late 1800s to a large, poor family. Her father was a part-time preacher in the Baptist Church, and she had seven brothers and sisters. Before she was nine years old, both parents and one brother had passed away, and she was living an orphan's life, watched over by her oldest sister. She and her brother began to play music on street corners to get by; another brother joined a traveling minstrel show. Smith eventually joined in with her older brother on the Moses Stokes Traveling Show, a large singing, dancing, and comedy act that often depended on racist stereotypes and jokes at the expense of black people. Minstrel shows are now looked back upon as a shameful practice and as the source of the infamous "blackface" tradition in which whites performed with black face makeup as stereotypical African-American figures. At the time, joining these degrading shows was one of the only ways for talented black performers to make money.
In some versions of the story, Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, considered the Mother of the Blues, picked up Bessie Smith out of one of these shows when Smith was only twelve; in other versions Smith was as old as 18 before she met Rainey. A rumor even spread that Rainey had kidnapped Smith—a highly unlikely story, but a juicy one for blues fans at the time. In any case, Rainey, already a seasoned blues singer, took Smith on the road with her and taught her everything she knew.
Smith quickly grew popular on blues singing circuits, which were then almost exclusively black venues. But everything was about to change, and fast. The spread of recording technology combined with the new popularity of the radio transformed popular music, and with it, transformed the racial dynamics of listening to and making the blues. At a show in a honky-tonk in Alabama, a white New York record producer named Frank Walker heard Smith sing, an experience he later recalled as "the most overwhelming musical experience of my life" (Giants of Jazz, 35). Walker eventually sent for Bessie, and in 1923 he oversaw her first studio recordings in New York City. Smith recorded with Columbia Records before even Ma Rainey had been recorded. Her first records sold over two million copies in 1923 alone. According to Terkel, "It is said that people who couldn't buy coal bought Bessie" (36). This was the 1920s equivalent of downloading iTunes tracks instead of paying your heating bill. It was a Bessie Smith craze, to say the least.
How (and Why) W.C. Handy Popularized the Blues
Even a few years before, a phenomenon like Bessie Smith's widespread success would not have been possible. The blues, after all, was generally a form of music played by and for African Americans. To hear the blues, you had to go down south to a honky-tonk or a juke joint, establishments that were generally seen by outsiders (especially white outsiders) as seedy and dangerous. This was before people had heard of Muddy Waters or Robert Johnson, before "the blues" went beyond a loose term describing a semi-organic musical development driven by improvisation and live performance.
This is where the strange character of W.C. Handy comes into the picture. Handy was an African-American composer, band director, and entrepreneur with a strong middle class identity. Born in 1873, he had become a musician against the will of his conservative family and started a career as a band director and a composer, touring with a minstrel show from 1897 to 1903.
Handy, though, envisioned himself as more of a Russell Simmons, working in production and promotion to make it big. Instead of presenting as a musician, he presented himself as a composer-entrepreneur, self-consciously marketing himself alongside his music. When he adopted the blues into his repertoire, it was not because he'd grown up with the blues or felt like it ran in his blood because he was black. He decided to write blues music when his orchestra was playing a show in Mississippi for a group of wealthy whites. The white people asked for "native music," to which Handy replied that he had no idea what they were talking about. He was, after all, an orchestral composer and director, not a folk singer. As he tells it, when his band took a break, a string band was brought in off the street, "the raggedyest-looking group Handy has ever seen" (Will Friedwald, Stardust Melodies: A Biography of Twelve of America's Most Popular Songs, 46). When the crowd showered cash on the string band, Handy recounts, "I saw the beauty of primitive music. They had the stuff the people wanted…my idea of what constitutes music was changed by the sight of that silver money cascading around the splay feet of a Mississippi string band" (46).
That statement from Handy might cause a wince from most fans of traditional blues and folk—after all, musical crafts created by the poor have been derided in a dozen ways over the years, and it's alarming to think that an influential black composer like Handy didn't even think of it as music until he saw that it made money. But that's capitalism, right? (Ask the Wu Tang Clan whether cash rules everything around us…or don't ask, because you already know the answer.) And if there's anything Handy had a handle on, it was how to make music work for him in a capitalist environment. He struggled a fair share to make it there, but his was a definite success story. And that desire for success sums up why he wrote "St. Louis Blues": to spread the blues around to audiences of all races and make a buck in the process.
"St. Louis Blues" was a bridge between the improvised, unwritten and largely unrecorded world of traditional blues and the more resourced world of pop music. At the time, this also meant it was a bridge between music that was almost exclusively black, and music that was almost exclusively white. According to Friedwald, "St. Louis Blues" is the single song that did the most to connect the blues with popular music. What's more, he says, "One has no hesitation in making the claim for 'St. Louis Blues' that it is by far the most performed and recorded individual blues of all time" (42). He says this is simply because most blues songs were not put to paper. Instead, the blues generally followed the same form and recycled material, making the performers into the primary crafters of the music.
With his combination of formal training and access to black musical cultures, Handy saw himself as a perfect mediator, a sort of ambassadorial figure bringing blues to white people on a nicely polished platter. "I aimed to use all that is characteristic of the N**** from Africa to Alabama," he said of his music (Friedwald 52). Handy is also very clear that he was not actually one of the poor blacks who grew up around traditional blues music. He was a blues mediator, not a blues man—maybe distancing himself from the latter to be sure of his success as mediator. When he wrote "St. Louis Blues" in 1913, he formulated it as a combination of 12-bar blues and tango (tango, an Argentinian form that also had African origins, had recently come into vogue with whites in Latin America and the U.S.), creating a mildly sad but also danceable, almost cheerful translation of basic blues forms.
But Wait—Is "St. Louis Blues" Really Blues?
As Handy had hoped, the music caught on with white audiences. But inevitably, some believed (and some still believe) that compositions like "St. Louis Blues" weren't "real blues." T-Bone Walker said, "That's a pretty tune, and it has a kind of bluesy tone, but it's not the blues. You can't dress up the blues" (Francis Davis, The History of the Blues, 60). To a lot of blues musicians, like Walker, the blues were lost when you brought in a choir, a tango beat, and a bunch of sheet music. What's more, W.C. Handy's song wasn't really all that sad. Was making the music palatable also going to suck the soul out of it?
A similar conflict arose in the 1960s around the folk music scene when folk purists thought that nothing electric could be real folk music. But such criticisms soon began to feel hollow. Musical forms, like all art forms, inevitably transform—and at a certain point, those transformations are usually accepted no matter how politically problematic they felt at the time. Think about it: at this point, if real blues couldn't be transformed into popular songs, plugged in, amped up, and imitated, much of what we consider blues today would be off the table. And in terms of its musical structure, Handy studied the blues enough to follow the 12-bar blues with a bit of composer's flair, in fact writing a semi-traditional blues in the first place. And whether purists liked it or not, his compositions came to dominate how many Americans—especially white Americans—thought about the blues in general.
Handy eventually became "rich and famous, one of the most successful black men of the early twentieth century" (Friedwald 40), and no one can fault him for it. As Isaac Goldberg wrote in 1920, "Handy is not the inventor of the genre, he is its Moses, not its Jehovah. It was he who, first of musicians, codified the new spirit in American music and set it forth upon the conquest of the North" (Friedwald 41). As the Moses of the blues, Handy played an instrumental role in the process of turning the blues into an ingrained form in the U.S., not to mention a source of cultural pride and fiscal success for those African-Americans who were able to use the genre's popularity to their own advantage.
"['St. Louis Blues'] became a staple for everyone engaged in the business of making popular music," wrote Friedwald (52). Literally dozens of recordings of the song were made from the 1920s through the 1950s, by black and white bands and singers. And with the popularizing of this poppy blues ditty, the blues started to shift toward being more polished, more palatable to white audiences (and to their pocketbooks), and less "down home." The divas who headed up this move—Ma Rainey, Mamie Smith, and Bessie Smith—later became known as the singers of the "classic blues," a distinct development of mostly female singers that was less gritty and raw than the "country blues" (although still far more gritty in style than much of the popular blues to come in the decades to follow). Like Bessie Smith, most of the other women singing classic blues had minstrel show or vaudeville backgrounds and performed with a pop sensibility that made their work more accessible to whites, who could often only see these performers through the smokescreen of racist stereotypes and degrading expectations.
The Legacies of Smith and Handy
Purists on issues of blues "realness" have some fair points: there are always consequences to transformations, especially when money is involved. In particular, all this sleek slickness did not particularly benefit the great Bessie Smith, at least not in the long run. Her singing style, although versatile, was made and trained to sing some pretty gritty blues, not an operatic remake of the blues. She used that gritty power to make the iconic recording of "St. Louis Blues" in 1925 with Louis Armstrong. The song was a ridiculously huge hit, and did a lot for Handy's career. But according to Studs Terkel, the shift towards a slick popular form of the blues would "deepen Bessie's sorrow and intensify her drinking" (40). After a streak of wild success from 1923 until about 1926, her popularity slipped. Her rough, classic blues voice couldn't keep up with the sounds of popular music, and some say she tried too hard to force a sound that wasn't hers. By the early 1930s, Bessie found herself agreeing to deals that were a relative humiliation: making The St. Louis Blues film, for example, was a compromised move for a woman of her stature. She found herself doing performances in "mammy" costumes and singing "bawdy, fifth-rate songs" on the vaudeville circuit again (Terkel 41). She lost her record deal with Columbia, and her husband, Jack Gee, became her manager, purportedly mismanaging her money even after her death.
After a brief comeback period driven by her popularity with students of jazz music, Smith was killed in a car crash in September 1937. She was only around forty years old, and legend has it that she was denied admission to a hospital due to her race and bled to death on the way to a more distant hospital. She was buried without a gravestone despite an outpouring of popular mourning. It wasn't until 1970, when Janis Joplin chipped in, that Smith got a headstone, which reads "The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing."
W.C. Handy passed away in 1958 at age 84. His funeral was attended by 150,000 people, and his reputation as a Father of the Blues was a lasting legacy. His stories about first encountering the blues at the turn of the century in the deep south have become full-on blues legend, a part of the accepted story of the birth of the blues. Handy wrote about this so-called "discovery" in his autobiography: "A lean, loose-jointed N**** had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept…His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of a guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who use steel bars. The effect was unforgettable" (Davis 25).
When a popular blues revival hit the airwaves in the 1960s, the focus was definitely on this image: a lone black man with a guitar in the Deep South, plucking out some down-home tunes on a stoop or street corner. And the new wave of interest mainly came from white male hippies, some of whom undoubtedly read W.C. Handy's memoirs as affirmation of these stories from the mysterious past. The legacy of women like Bessie Smith, who played the game and tried to build careers for themselves in the competitive reality of pop music, had less traction with the new crowds of blues fans. Something about being a flailing pop star seems to have a little less historical romance to it than the more enigmatic idea of unsung heroes--even when it's actually the flailing pop star who does the heavy lifting to keep the music alive. But fads come and go, and for serious listeners—and serious players—Bessie Smith's expansive capabilities are still. Her delicate and intense interaction with Louis Armstrong's playful horn on "St. Louis Blues" made her a star in her time and an icon in the still-unfolding history of the blues.