Nothing But the Blues: Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith is seen here as a young woman at the outset of her career. Image from Nothing But the Blues.

“The story of the blues is inseparable from the story of the phonograph record,” Richard K. Spottswood writes in his chapter women and the blues, from Abbeville’s captivating survey of blues music and blues musicians, Nothing But the Blues. The phonograph meant that music became accessible to new audiences, and thanks to Columbia Records’ contract with Western Electric to license new recording techniques starting in 1925, the recordings we have of singers such as Bessie Smith capture far more accurately her deep, earthy, commanding voice.

Mamie Smith held the distinction of recording what is officially known as the first blues recording in 1920, of her “Crazy Blues,” and soon after many more women followed suit—the decade that followed proved extraordinary in the history of women’s voices in the blues. One seemingly impossible story from those years is the legend that Bessie Smith was turned down after auditioning with several recording companies, perhaps because her powerful, sensual voice could have overpowered any instrumentation. Still, how Thomas Edison (the same Edison who invented the phonograph) could have written in young Bessie Smith’s talent file that her voice was “no good” is almost beyond belief. In 1923, Frank Walker heard her sing and recognized immediately her talent, and she signed a contract with Columbia Records.

Bessie Smith and other blueswomen of her generation wrote and sang bravely about hard times and difficult—and often taboo—subjects. Through the candor and the passion of their expression, they have now reached audiences worldwide, and their recordings continue to move listeners and to bring people together. In his information chapter, contributing author of Nothing But the Blues, David Evans discusses the trailblazing importance of these women:

Their songs combined elements of the cabaret-vaudeville style with the toughness of country blues, as they sang in an unaffected manner of violence, cheating men, the drudgery of their workaday lives, lovemaking, nightmare images, escape, and a whole host of other subjects. Many of their recordings displayed songwriting skills of a high order that deserve greater recognition and exposure.

 

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Click here for more information on Nothing But the Blues, published by Abbeville Press.

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