Bessie Smith’s Impact on Black Music

Bessie Smith’s Impact on Black Music: With Lindsay Guion

June was black music appreciation month in the United States, observing the undeniable influence that African-American’s had (and still have) on American music. The most influential genres on American music in the 20th century were jazz and the blues, which were created by African-American communities in the Deep South. Among the most influential black musicians of the early 20th century was Jazz and Blues vocalist Bessie Smith. Bessie Smith’s powerful voice won her countless fans and earned her the title of “Empress of the Blues”. As the Entertainment Advisor of Bessie Smith’s Estate, Lindsay Guion wants to highlight the major contributions that Bessie made to black music in the 1920s, 1930s, and beyond. To outline all of her major accomplishments, why her music resonated, and how her legacy continues today, Lindsay Guion shares everything we needed to know.

Her life 

According to the 1900 census, Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in July 1892 and was one of seven children. Her father, a Baptist minister, died soon after her birth, leaving her mother to raise her and her siblings.  Lindsay Guion explains that for Bessie, music was second nature. Bessie Smith started singing at a very young age and performing on the streets of Chattanooga, accompanied on the guitar by one of her younger brothers. In 1912, Bessie Smith began performing as a dancer in Moses Stokes minstrel show, and soon thereafter in the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, of which Blues vocalist Ma Rainey was a member. Taking Bessie under her wing, Bessie continued to perform at various theatres and on the vaudeville circuit. Through these experiences, Bessie Smith gradually developed her own following in the south and along the eastern seaboard.

By the early 1920s, Bessie Smith had settled down and was living in Philadelphia, and in 1923 she met and married a man named Jack Gee. That same year, she was discovered by a representative from Columbia records, and in 1923, signed a contract with them. Lindsay Guion explains that before long, she was one of the highest-paid black performers of her time, with hits like “Downhearted Blues”, which sold an estimated 800,000 copies. This propelled Smith into the blues spotlight. Her rich and powerful voice made her a successful recording artist and allowed her to tour extensively during the 1920s. One of her most popular songs was her 1929 hit ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”. 

At the height of her success, Smith’s career began to flounder due to the financial ravages of the Great Depression. By the end of 1931, she had stopped working with Columbia altogether. However, Bessie Smith did not give up, and kept touring until 1933 when she was contacted by producer John Hammond to make new recordings. Unfortunately, on her way to a show in Memphis, Tennessee, Bessie Smith was in a car accident where she was thrown from the vehicle and badly injured. She died of her wounds in 1937 at the age of 43. 

Her legacy

Known as the ‘Empress of the Blues’, Bessie Smith is an iconic American singer who influenced an entire generation of artists. Bessie Smith sang about the things her audiences were living and feeling, and as a result, they identified with her music deeply. Decades before hip-hop artists spoke about the struggles of black working-class life, Bessie Smith sang about the everyday reality of wanting to live life to its fullest as a young, black, poor woman. Her sound influenced some of the most prominent vocalists who followed in her wake. From Billie Holiday to Janis Joplin and Elvis Presley, Bessie Smith’s influence can still be felt reverberating through music today.

Bessie Smith did not give up despite the trouble of her circumstances. This spirit of ambition has resonated with audiences for over eight decades since her passing. With over 20 years of experience in the music industry, Lindsay Guion is providing financial aid to three students attending a university or college in North America through the Bessie Smith Scholarship Fund. In the spirit of Bessie Smith, this scholarship fund aims to help ambitious students achieve their goals. To apply, students must submit proof of enrollment, and submit a 500-word essay in response to the essay top: “Music as Therapy or Voice as an Expressive Musical Instrument.” Students have until August 31st, 2020 to apply to the scholarship, where the winner will be announced in September 2020.