Dr. Michelle Scott is the author of Blues Empress in Black Chattanooga: Bessie Smith and the Emerging Urban South, a book that explores Bessie Smith's childhood and early career in Chattanooga. She researched Smith’s early life using a combination of oral histories, primary source materials, music, maps, and government information.
HEy Dr. Scott,
How did Bessie Smith get her start performing?
Dr. Scott: She was performing as a street entertainer as early as 9. But, she was never really alone. She was performing with her older brother Andrew. And they would kind of go from corner to corner and he would play the guitar while she sang for essentially pennies and nickels.
Can you imagine what it would have been like to see her during those days?
Dr. Scott: I can. Mostly it's recreations from looking at other folks' interviews. There's some interviews with people who claim that they witnessed street performers in Chattanooga, and that they remember this little girl with a powerful, adult voice singing on the street corners.
"I imagine what would have attracted them is not her tattered clothing, but that she was singing really adult themed songs as a child."
What kind of songs she was singing in those days?
Dr. Scott: One was called "Won't You Come Home Bill Bailey." It talked about loss, love, a man stayed out all night long. And an 8, 9 — or even a 10- or 12-year-old singing those kind of lyrics would've taken some customers aback.
What was Bessie Smith’s family like?
Dr. Scott: Bessie Smith was the youngest of 10 children born to William and Laura Smith. And they had been migrants after the Civil War, coming from northern Alabama into Chattanooga. Bessie's mother was a day laborer, a washer woman. And her father was a day laborer who worked in Chattanooga's iron foundries. They were hard-working, newly urban people in the 1890s.
She had the misfortune of being the youngest of parents who died when she was quite young. Her father dies when she's 6. Her mother dies when she's between 9 and 10. So, she ends up raised by her older sister Viola.
The Smiths lived close to 9th Street, which today is Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. What was the scene like on 9th Street in those days?
Dr. Scott: Ninth Street was a mix of African American and white owned shops, stores, restaurants, hotels. You would've had a mix of both working class and middle class African Americans who kind of lined the streets.
Streetcar lines above you, alongside horse and buggies in the street at the same time. So, it was kind of like that intersection of the old and the new. The beginning of the modern, where African Americans owned and operated some of their own business establishments.
It was full of really secular music. There was a community of other African Americans who were involved in dance and music that she would have learned from.
So, Bessie Smith was out there performing in the streets. What are some criticisms that there may have been of her as a young woman performing in the streets?
Dr. Scott: I think the greatest criticism is that, the street itself in the early 20th century wasn't known as a stage for women. When you think of a time period when women are expected to be in the home, in the churches, and beauty salons, but are not necessarily working in the public in the same way that Smith works.
"And so to have a young girl... is going to be kind of a jarring sight, to see her commanding her street stage in public."
How did she transition from being a street performer to a professional one?
Dr. Scott: She auditioned for something called the Moses Stokes Review when she's a teenager, when she's 17 and 19. And that's typical of one of the traveling shows that's coming through the South. A lot of these shows are tent shows. And so, she gets her start there as a chorus girl.
What do you think is the predominant image of Bessie Smith, versus, the story that people don't hear about her?
Dr. Scott: I think the predominant image of Bessie Smith is that she was a powerful entertainer, but that she was violent, she drank excessively, and she was sexually promiscuous. She was the epitome of the wild and crazy 1920s woman.
And, I'm not saying that none of that actually happened. But I think what people don't know is how much of an artist she really was. Everything that went into crafting her style, the ability to sing without amplification in many cases. She was able to come from such an impoverished background and end up being one of the highest paid African American women in the country And we're talking about 1924, 1925.
So, that rise was very difficult, and I was really impressed by her perseverance and her tenacity, despite the fact that she had many problems as an entertainer. She still pushed through, vocally.