You didn’t need to lean in to hear Bessie Smith sing. Her rich voice, trained to project to and reach audiences on the live circuit, filled rooms and rang out from radio and record.
Bessie Smith recorded her first song in 1923, went on to record at least 159 more, and became one of the highest paid entertainers of her generation.
(Books and Arts)
In the Roaring 20s, Smith and other black blues women challenged lingering 19th century beliefs that women were naturally pure, passive, and passionless.
Blues women were strong and sexual. They refused to be defined by negative white stereotypes, hanging over from slavery, that painted black women as hypersexual. Instead, they performed and expressed their own desires on their own terms.
As Bessie Smith sang in Young Woman’s Blues:
I’m a young woman and ain’t done runnin’ round
ain’t gonna marry, ain’t gonna settle down
I’m gonna drink good moonshine
I’m a good woman and I can get plenty men.
In this way, Smith provided a model and a soundtrack for a more liberated woman.
Challenging the status quo
At a time when African Americans seeking jobs and new lives were moving in large numbers from the South to urban centres around the United States, and black women were expected by whites to be silent and subservient, Smith sang about the problems and pleasures of black communities in flux.
Her subjects included queer desire, infidelity, and intimate partner violence, subjects that resonated with and gave comfort to black women in particular.
Annie Lennox’s gender-bending expression had an antecedent in the likes of Bessie Smith. (Getty Images: Paul Natkin)
In Outside of That (1923), when Smith sang of “the meanest man in the land” who “blacked my eyes” and “knocks out both of my teeth,” she shared her own and many other women’s experience.
But the violence between Smith and her husband didn’t stop her from living her life, a life that included affairs with women.
Blues women played with bisexuality, queer desire, and gender-bending, decades before Little Richard, David Bowie, Grace Jones, and Annie Lennox did so.
Smith’s mentor, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, sang about wearing “a collar and a tie” and talking “to the gals just like any old man”.
Another singer, Gladys Bentley, won audiences with the combination of her butch persona, piano-playing, bawdy lyrics, and open lust for women in the audience.
Such queer gender-bending was a fact of life, but that made it no less risqué at a time when homosexuality was illegal.
Smith sang in a unique style, using varied phrasing and improvisation that influenced singers for generations, from Aretha Franklin to Robert Plant.
In a society that muffled women’s voices, hers rang out publicly, and inspired other women to use theirs.
Even decades after Smith’s heyday, Janis Joplin said that Smith “showed me the air and taught me how to fill it”.
When she died in 1937, Bessie Smith, “Empress of the Blues,” was buried in an unmarked grave.
Leaving a mark on modern pop
Bessie Smith’s headstone was bought for her by Janis Joplin. (Getty Images: Michael Ochs Archives)
The treatment of women in pop has been bleak. But theirs is a story of spectacular endurance, of pioneering creativity, of risk-taking, game-changing courage.
By refusing to stay silent, by ignoring and subverting male dominance and white power, through their sheer brilliance, women have transformed pop music.
It’s time to name them, to celebrate them, to tell their stories. Just as Janis Joplin and civil rights activist Juanita Green did when they bought a headstone for Bessie Smith’s grave.
They had it inscribed with the words: “the greatest blues singer in the world will never stop singing.”
It’s true. We just have to listen for her voice.
This is an edited version of an article originally published in Women in Pop magazine.