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The Mythic Power Of Bessie Smith

Nov 21, 2012
Originally published on November 26, 2012 11:39 am

Vocalist Bessie Smith's musical career, spanning 1923-33, has been collected in a new 10-CD box set, Bessie Smith: The Complete Columbia Recordings.

Recorded shortly before the 1927 floods that devastated the Mississippi River valley, Bessie Smith had written "Back Water Blues" in sympathy with flood victims she'd encountered near Cincinnati months earlier, who, the story goes, asked her to bear witness to their pain. Even so, having a song ready for folks along the Mississippi just when they needed some empathy speaks to her mythic power — her ability to give voice to her listeners' tribulations and yearnings.

In the 1920s, Bessie Smith was a colossus who straddled jazz and blues. For all the acclaim she still gets, over time she's been marginalized a bit in either field — like she's too jazzy for blues people and vice versa. But Smith played a decisive role in shaping early jazz: horn players who worked with her learned a lot about bluesy feeling and inflections, a raspy vocalized sound, and the economical statement. She helped brass players in particular to find their own individual styles, as personal as singing voices.

The horn players who answered her plaintive phrases might respond with sympathy, mockery, or sarcastic sweetness — they stretched their own rhetorical range. She found Louis Armstrong a little too aggressive in support, more in it for himself. But he and Bessie sound great together on the "St. Louis Blues." Fred Longshaw's wheezy harmonium conjures up a little country church.

There are many less daunting Smith compilations around, but the remastered sound here is mostly quiet and clear, and immersing yourself in her sides helps you get past the primitive recording to the music itself. Tracking her session by session, you hear her style evolve.

As a live performer, Smith was famous for bellowing to a theater's back rows and balcony. But by the later 1920s, she'd learned how to use the recording studio. She could lower the volume without diminishing her power. This is the Bessie Smith who influenced the young Billie Holiday, whose own early sides a few years later have a similar playful quality.

Even modernized a bit, Smith's blues began sounding old fashioned by the end of the 1920s; her recording career was almost over. (The Great Depression didn't help.) But she left the music very different from when she began recording. She no longer had to coax musicians into bluesy expressionism; now they carried her. Bessie Smith's last recordings from 1933 marked a changing of the guard, with newcomers like saxophonist Chu Berry and clarinetist Benny Goodman on board. Four years later, she died after a grisly road accident near Clarksdale, Miss.: the cradle of the man-with-guitar country blues that had replaced her theatrical kind. Even her exit had its mythic sides.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

In the 1920s, journalists and press agents dubbed Bessie Smith The Empress of the Blues and no one contested the title. She was first among the era's great women blues shouters. Her demise in the late '30s inspired Edward Albee's historically dubious play "The Death of Bessie Smith." Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says her art always seemed larger than life size.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BACKWATER BLUES")

BESSIE SMITH: (Singing) When it rains five days and the sky turns dark as night, when it rains five days and the sky turns dark as night, then trouble's taking place in the low lands at night. I woke up this morning...

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Bessie Smith "Back Water Blues" recorded shortly before the 1927 floods that devastated the Mississippi River Valley. She'd written it in sympathy with flood victims she'd encountered near Cincinnati months earlier, whom, the story goes, asked her to bear witness to their pain. Even so, having a song ready for folks along the Mississippi just when they needed some empathy speaks to her mythic power - her ability to give voice to her listeners' tribulations and yearnings.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BACKWATER BLUES")

SMITH: (Singing) When it thunders and lightning and the wind begins to blow, when it thunders and lightning and the wind begins to blow, there's thousands of people ain't got no place to go. And I...

WHITEHEAD: James P. Johnson on piano. In the 1920s, Bessie Smith was a colossus who straddled jazz and blues. For all the acclaim she still gets, over time she's been marginalized a bit in either field - like she's too jazzy for blues people and vice versa.

But Smith played a decisive role in shaping early jazz. Horn players who worked with her learned a lot about bluesy feeling and inflections, a raspy vocalized sound and the economical statement. She helped brass players in particular to find their own individual styles, as personal as singing voices.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WEEPING WILLOW BLUES")

SMITH: (Singing) I went up on the mountain, as high as any gal could stand. And looked down on that engine that took away my love in May, and that's the reason I've got those weeping willow blues.

WHITEHEAD: Bessie Smith, 1924, with two favorite accompanists - cornetist Joe Smith and trombonist Charlie Green from pianist Fletcher Henderson's band. The horn players who answered her plaintive phrases might respond with sympathy, mockery or sarcastic sweetness; they stretched their own rhetorical range. She found Louis Armstrong a little too aggressive in support, more in it for himself. But he and Bessie sound great together on the "St. Louis Blues." Fred Longshaw's wheezy harmonium conjures up a little country church.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ST. LOUIS BLUES")

SMITH: (Singing) Feeling tomorrow like I feel today. Feeling tomorrow like I feel today. I'll pack my grip and make my getaway. St. Louis...

WHITEHEAD: This music is from a 10 CD box, "Bessie Smith: The Complete Columbia Recordings," which is to say all her recordings spanning 1923 to '33. There are many less daunting Smith compilations around, but the remastered sound here is mostly quiet and clear, and immersing yourself in her sides helps you get past the primitive recording to the music itself. Tracking her session by session, you hear her style evolve.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLOW AND EASY MAN")

SMITH: (Singing) Don't care where he is. Don't care what he does. All my love is here. He's my only one. Ah, my slow and easy man.

WHITEHEAD: As a live performer, Smith was famous for bellowing to a theater's back rows and balcony. But by the later 1920s, she'd learned how to use the recording studio. She could lower the volume without diminishing her power. This is the Bessie Smith who influenced the young Billie Holiday, whose own early sides a few years later have a similar playful quality.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLOW AND EASY MAN")

SMITH: (Singing) Miss him, yeah, in town. Miss him everywhere. He's the only man that can make me care. Ah, my slow and easy man.

WHITEHEAD: Even modernized a bit, Smith's blues began sounding old fashioned by the end of the 1920s. Her recording career was almost over. The Great Depression didn't help. But she left the music very different from when she began recording. She no longer had to coax musicians into bluesy expressionism, now they carried her.

Bessie Smith's last recordings from 1933 marked a changing of the guard, with newcomers like saxophonist Chu Berry and clarinetist Benny Goodman on board. Four years later, she died after a grisly road accident near Clarksdale, Mississippi - the cradle of the man-with-guitar country blues that had replaced her theatrical kind. Even her exit had its mythic sides.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M DOWN IN THE DUMPS)

SMITH: (Singing) I had a nightmare last night when I lay down. When I woke up this morning my sweet man couldn't be found. I'm going down to the river. Into it I'm going to jump. Can't keep from worrying 'cause I'm down in the dumps. Someone knocked on my door last night when I was asleep. I thought it was that sweet man of mine making his 'fore day creep. Was nothing but my landlord, a great big chump.

(Singing) Stay away from my door, Mr. Landlord, 'cause I'm down in the dumps.

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure, Downbeat, and Emusic and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "Bessie Smith: The Complete Columbia Recordings," a 10 CD collection spanning the years 1923 to '33. You can download podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org and you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.