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Bessie Smith

Important Terms, People, and Events

General Summary

Bessie's Beginnings

Terms

Civil Rights Movement -   · A social movement that found its catalyst in two events: Brown vs. the Board of Education, a Supreme Court decision which found segregation unconstitutional; and Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her seat at the front of the bus in Selma, Alabama. The movement, which found its leader in Martin Luther King, Jr., pushed for an end to Jim Crow Laws and the passage of a civil rights act that would prohibit discrimination based on one's skin color.
Harlem Renaissance -   · Refers to the proliferation of art and music in New York's African-American community in the 1920's. During this time, Harlem became the undisputed intellectual and artistic center of African-American society. The 1920s in Harlem produced writers like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson and Claude McKay, and photographers like Roy De Carava and James Van Der Zee.
Jim Crow Laws -   · Jim Crow Laws were the most effective agent of segregation in the South. The laws prohibited businesses from employing African-Americans, and barred African- Americans access to public places such as hotels, restaurants and public restrooms. Jim Crow legislation was officially instituted by the southern states shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation. These laws remained in place until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
Ku Klux Klan  -   · The Ku Klux Klan, or KKK, is a "secret society" based in the South which promotes the superiority of white Protestants over all non-white and non- Protestant people. The KKK was responsible for many acts of violence against African-Americans, including lynchings, after the Civil War, and this violence continued up until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Since the passage of the Civil Rights Amendment, the KKK's influence has dwindled drastically.
Moses Stokes' Traveling Show  -   · A traveling vaudeville and minstrel tent show run by Lonnie and Cora Fisher. Bessie's brother Clarence Smith first worked the circuit as a comedian and then managed to convince the Fishers to give Bessie Smith in 1912. Bessie Smith then joined the show.
Minstrels -   · Minstrel shows became popular in the 1820s and were, for years, the most popular form of live entertainment in America. In minstrel shows, white performers blackened their faces and exaggerated their facial features, often lining their lips in white paint, in order to imitate slaves in the South and former slaves in the North. Blackface minstrels were particularly offensive–to our modern sensibilities–because they portrayed African-Americans as lazy, shiftless and dim-witted, and these stereotypes continued for decades.
Northern Migration -   · The Northern Migration of Southern African-Americans to the great industrial cities of the North took place after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Despite being freed from slavery, life did not improve much for African- Americans in the devastated Southern states and many sought opportunity in the prosperous, relatively liberal North. However, with the influx of European immigrants, African-Americans found jobs scarce and discrimination as rampant as it had been in the South.
Reconstruction -   · The period of readjustment–social, economic and physical–that occurred in the American South following the Civil War. The South had been completely devastated during the four-year war and now, with the once entrenched social system turned on its head, had to rebuild and redefine itself.
Roaring Twenties -   · Term given to the years directly following America's victory in WWI in which industrialization hit a high point and the country's wealth increased rapidly. Also, alternatively, called the Jazz Age.
Segregation -   · A policy of separating the races that was put in place in the South during Reconstruction. Segregation usually took the form of what were informally called Jim Crow Laws, in which blacks and whites were required, by law, to use separate facilities, including schools, restrooms and drinking fountains.
TOBA  -   · Theater Owners' Booking Association, or as the African-American artists who worked under its auspices liked to call it, "Tough On Black Asses." A collective of theater owners that booked vaudeville, minstrel, and blues shows in the South.

People

Bessie Smith  -  Legendary blues singer of twenties and thirties. Despite a raucous, often tragic, personal life, Smith had a stunning recording and performance career which made her fabulously wealthy for a time. She died in a car accident, possibly because she was denied treatment by a whites-only hospital.
Edward Albee -  An American playwright whose second play, "The Death of Bessie Smith", opened in West Berlin in 1959. Albee went on to write plays such as "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" and "A Delicate Balance", which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1966.
Louis Armstrong -  Widely considered to be the one of the most important jazz musicians in American history. In a now historic 1925 Columbia recording session, Armstrong accompanied Bessie Smith on "St. Louis Blues."
Sidney Bechet -  A jazz saxophonist and clarinetist with whom Bessie played on tours and in the Columbia and Okeh studios. Considered a jazz pioneer, Bechet grew up in New Orleans and was part of the innovative and influential New Orleans school of jazz that included Louis Armstrong and King Oliver.
Jack Gee  -  Jack Gee married Bessie Smith on June 7, 1923. Gee, a strong, handsome man, also had a hair-trigger temper, and frequently beat Smith. After marrying Bessie, Gee also managed her career to some extent.
Jack Gee, Jr. -  Smith's adopted son, who was born to one of her chorus girls. He was mostly raised by Bessie's eldest sister, Viola.
John Hammond -  Smith's producer during the mid-Thirties, who orchestrated sessions with her for Okeh Records. Hammond's music magazine, Downbeat, published the article "Did Bessie Smith Bleed to Death While Waiting For Medical Help?" which would shape the way many people viewed her death.
W.C. Handy -  William Christopher Handy is often called the "Father of the Blues." As a cornetist, bandleader and composer, Handy is best known for synthesizing traditional blues with the quicker tempo and syncopation of ragtime and early jazz. Handy collaborated with Bessie Smith on "St. Louis Blues."
Billie Holiday -  Nicknamed Lady Day, Holiday was one of the most influential jazz artists of the Twentieth Century. Holiday cited Bessie Smith as an early influence. She died of a drug overdose in 1959.
Alberta Hunter -  A contemporary of Bessie Smith's. With songs like "Downhearted Blues" and "If You Want to Keep Your Daddy Home," Hunter became one of the most popular blues artists of the Twenties.
Janis Joplin -  One of the most popular of the 1960's rock icons, Janis Joplin's bluesy, throaty voice was a direct imitation of Bessie Smith, whom she sometimes said was reincarnated through her songs. Joplin fronted the money for Smith's headstone in 1970. She died of a drug overdose.
Earl Love -  Smith's first husband. Very little is know about Earl Love, other than the fact that he came from a wealthy family and that he died shortly after he and Bessie were married.
Irvin Miller -  A bandleader who turned Bessie down for a gig in his chorus because he thought her skin was too dark.
Richard Morgan -  A Chicago bootlegger who was Smith's companion during the last two years before her death. Morgan was driving the car in which Smith suffered her fatal injuries on September 26, 1937.
Ma Rainey -  Ma Rainey was a short, stout woman well known for her garish costumes and jewelry. Before Smith, Rainey was the most popular blues singer in the South, and she took Smith under her wing when Smith joined the Moses Stokes Traveling Show in 1912.
Gertrude Saunders -  A blues singer with whom Jack Gee had an affair. Saunders became Smith's main rival, and Smith beat her quite badly in their only encounter after the affair.
Lillian Simpson -  A chorus girl in Smith's troupe and one of Ruby Walker's classmates, with whom Bessie had an intense love affair in 1927.
Clarence Smith  -  Bessie's older brother. He joined Moses Stokes Traveling Show in 1904 as a comedian and dancer and secured an audition for his sister in 1912.
Mamie Smith -  Considered the first woman to record a blues song ("Crazy Blues" and "It's Right Here for You", both in 1920), Mamie Smith was the catalyst for the great blues boom of the 1920's. When Mamie Smith's first two blues records sold over a million copies in a less than a year, record companies began looking for blues talent all over the South.
Viola Smith  -  Bessie Smith's eldest sister. Viola raised her five younger siblings when William and Laura Smith died. When Smith became a star, she bought Viola a home in Philadelphia, where Viola babysat Jack Gee, Jr..
Carl Van Vechten -  A wealthy, well-connected music journalist in New York City during the 1920s. Vechten, who was white, took a particular interest in black musicians and writers. He was considered one of New York's leading music critics during the 1920s, and later became a novelist and a photographer.
Frank Walker -  The head of Columbia Records's "Race" division. Frank Walker signed Bessie Smith to a record contract in 1923.
Ruby Walker  -  Jack Gee's niece and Bessie Smith's best friend. Ruby was a slender, pretty woman who adored her aunt. When Gee and Smith divorced, Ruby Walker disappeared along with Jack Gee.
Ethel Waters -  Ethel Waters was a pretty, slender woman whose light skin opened many doors for her that were not open to Bessie Smith. Waters performed in Broadway musicals throughout the Thirties, and in 1949 was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in the film "Pinky." She died in 1977.
Clarence Williams -  An influential early jazz composer and pianist, Williams was Smith's pianist for a number of years and was instrumental in securing her an audition with Columbia Records in 1923. Once Smith was signed, however, Williams tried to cheat her out of half of her recording fees.

Events

Black Tuesday  -  October 29, 1929. The stock market went into a tailspin and stocks lost value, setting the Great Depression in motion.
Prohibition  -  The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution prohibited "manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes." As a result, saloons became underground speakeasies, organized crime controlled most of the illegal liquors and bootlegging became one of the most lucrative careers one could enter into in the 1920s.
Emancipation Proclamation -  Signed by Abraham Lincoln on September 22, 1862, the Emancipation Proclamation essentially put an end to slavery in the United States. In its wake, huge numbers of freed slaves migrated to Northern cities.
Great Depression  -  The severe economic crisis instigated by the Stock Market Crash of 1929. The Depression's impact on the various sectors of American industry, business and society was devastating.
Lusitania -  A British ocean liner that was downed by a German torpedo on May 7, 1915, in the midst of WWI. Although officially the United States maintained its neutrality in the wake of the attack, the sinking of the Lusitania did much to stir up anti-German sentiment and increased American willingness to join a global war in progress.
Nineteenth Amendment  -  The Nineteenth Amendment, ratified on August 22, 1920, gave women the right to vote.
Twenty-First Amendment -  The Constitutional amendment repealing The Eighteenth Amendment, or Prohibition, ratified in 1933.
WWI  -  Also known as the Great War. Instigated in 1914 by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Austria-Hungary by a Serbian nationalist, World War I plunged all of Europe into chaos. After Germany sank the Lusitania and America's neutrality was pushed to its breaking point, Germany announced unrestricted warfare in British waters. In protest, America broke off diplomatic relations with Germany and, on April 6, 1917, joined WWI.

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