This week we saw The Devil’s Music, a play at the Warehouse Theatre in Winnipeg about the famous 1920’s songstress Bessie Smith. I learned some interesting things about the Grammy Award winner.
1. She was born in abject poverty in Tennessee in 1892, but was so beloved when she died that some ten thousand people walked by her coffin to pay tribute to her.
2. 1960’s rock star Janis Joplin once told friends she felt like she was Bessie Smith reincarnated. It was Joplin who saw to it that a headstone was provided for Bessie Smith’s grave 35 years after she was killed in a 1937 car accident. Joplin chose an epitaph that named Smith- The Greatest Blues Singer in the World.
3. During an outdoor performance in North Carolina, the Ku Klux Klan surrounded Bessie’s tent. She confronted them angrily shouting and ordering, “You just pick up them sheets and run!” The Klansmen were shocked. They quickly turned around and disappeared into the night.
4. Bessie’s relationship with her husband Jack Gee was characterized by violent abuse. Bessie was one of the first female musicians to sing about the issue of domestic violence.
5. In 1929 Bessie debuted in her first film St. Louis Blues. It was based on a jazz song called St. Louis Blues recorded by Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong.
6. Bessie struggled with alcoholism beginning in her late teens. It was something that haunted her throughout her life.
7. Bessie adopted a little boy. When she and her husband divorced- in an act of vindictiveness her husband turned the boy into authorities saying Bessie had mistreated the child. She lost custody of him.
8. Bessie had her own private train custom-made and paid for by Columbia records because as a black person she was not permitted in the ‘whites only’ first class cars of trains. Her train had seven staterooms, a kitchen, and a bathroom.
9. Bessie’s popularity led to her earning hundreds of thousands of dollars. In her day she made more money and sold more records than any other blues musician.
10. Bessie had an amazing voice. She was inducted into the Rock- and-Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. The United States issued a stamp honoring her in 1992.
Other posts about famous musicians………
Walking Into a Bob Marley Tourist Trap
Crossing Abbey Road
Nathan Rogers- A Story That Tugs At Your Heart Strings