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Bessie Smith

Study and Essay

Controversy

Quiz

Study Questions

What elements of Bessie's voice and musical style made her an innovator?

Bessie Smith brought to the current blues scene a new kind of vocal sophistication and an unusual kind of vocal power. She utilized what are called "blue notes," which are notes that fall somewhere between major and minor modes. She also incorporated moans, groans and vocal slides into her vocals, rather than simply focusing on lyrics. These were innovations that had an immense influence, both on blues and jazz singers.

How did Bessie Smith's attitudes toward whites make her different from many other blues and jazz artists of her time?

Bessie Smith, unlike fellow jazz and blues musicians like Ethel Waters and Billie Holiday, did not socialize with whites, and actively avoided it even white admirers and fans. Smith did not subscribe to the accepted social class system of the time that put whites above blacks. Only rarely would she perform at the white-only theaters that were staples in almost every Southern town, unlike many of her contemporaries. She vastly preferred performing for African- American audiences, who never required her to tone down her brusque, even vulgar showmanship. Unfortunately, this severely curtailed any chance Smith had of expanding her career to the stage and film, since both these worlds were largely controlled by whites.

Why did Bessie's career go downhill in the years after 1929?

Bessie Smith's career took a downturn in 1929 thanks to the Stock Market Crash, when the record-buying public no longer had enough money to purchase records. Other elements, however, contributed to Smith's difficult years. Around 1929, blues of the variety performed by singers like Smith and Ma Rainey began to fade in popularity. A new hybrid of blues and ragtime, an early form of jazz, supplanted the popularity of the blues, and became known as swing. In addition, as jazz became an identifiable and highly artistic musical form, blues struck many African-American musicians as rough and, in some instances, embarrassing. Add to this the growing popularity of talking pictures, which drew away vast numbers of people who would normally have been in the audience of a vaudeville or blues show, and Bessie's fortunes were negatively affected.

Essay Topics

How did American musical tastes change after the advent of the Great Depression what genres of music became popular?

Why did so many African-Americans from Southern states migrate to the industrial cities of the North?

Name three musicians who claim Bessie Smith as an influence and identify elements of their style in which her influence is present.

The circumstances surrounding Bessie Smith's death are perplexing and unclear. How has her death been mythologized and what effect has this had on her legacy?

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