Friday, December 30, 2005

Bessie Smith


A few weeks ago I decided that one of my friends -- who is rather into music -- had a gap in his repertoire when it came to light romantic popular music from early in the 20th century -- those songs which most everyone finds vaguely familiar but for which nobody tends to know the words unless they have a 'thing' for elevator music lyrics or they sing in a barbershop quartet. This suggested a Christmas present for my friend and I went out and bought him CD in which Danny Wright's excellent piano perfomance shows off many of these sturdy, if tired, songs to their best advantage.

Looking at the CD I had just bought it seemed a bit too much of a white-bread present for my friend so I also bought a Bessie Smith CD for balance and wrapped it up with the other CD. In the process I noticed that the Bessie Smith bin had several used CDs at attractive prices and I bought a couple of them as presents to myself.

For most people Bessie Smith is a familiar name but they have trouble remembering her songs. Those few who know the songs will still tend to remember someone else's performance of it since most of Bessie's successful songs were covered by other artists later and, having the benefit of less primitive recording technology, these covers tend to be the version that gets played. This is really too bad since Bessie Smith had something -- something that few other Blues singers have at all, and nobody else has quite as much of it as Bessie.

When women sing the Blues they generally are singing about "their man" and how he mistreats them (often expressed as "done me wrong"). Bessie is no different in that respect. But, with the others there is always an element of puzzlement, if not some irritation, on the part of the listener that these women allow themselves to be victimized with no attempt to take control of their situation. With Bessie, on the other hand, one gets the sense that, while her man may be the immediate cause of her problems, the real cause is her bad decisions driven by appetites that are at least the equal of his.

Another reason Bessie doesn't get a lot of airplay is that some of her best songs are rather explicit, even by today's standards. Consider this section from "Empty Bed Blues [mp3 excerpt]"

He came home one evening with his spirit way up high
He came home one evening with his spirit way up high
What he had to give me, make me wring my hands and cry

He give me a lesson that I never had before
He give me a lesson that I never had before
When he got to teachin' me, from my elbow down was sore

He boiled my first cabbage and he made it awful hot.
He boiled my first cabbage and he made it awful hot.
When he put in the bacon, it overflowed the pot
Ooof! There's a good example of how a well chosen metaphor can take an indelicate subject and make it lewd.

One thing that strikes me about Bessie's songs is that, while most of them are about sex -- or at least about relations between the sexes -- the notion of procreation is entirely absent. You'd think that since her songs were recorded in a time when there weren't many options for contraception the idea of pregnancy, or the risk of it, would appear somewhere among the list of woes to be cataloged. But it doesn't. The words "mama" and "papa" appear often enough, but always as terms of endearment; they are never used in a literal sense. Most of her songs were written by men and maybe that explains the omission to some extent.

One may be justified in thinking that the apetites expressed in Bessie's songs make them to some extent auto-biographical. One of her few songs that is not about sex as far as I can tell -- Gimme a Pig Foot and a Bottle of Beer [mp3 excerpt] -- nonetheless expresses a fondness for unrefined fun that may explain some of her reputatuion for showing up at club dates too drunk and out of control to perform. But she was always sober for her recording sessions and her performances in her prime are wonderful. Gimme a Pig Foot is a particular favorite of mine. She wails. She stomps and growls. It is the least ladylike song I can think of. It's a marvel.

One song that Bessie did write herself is Black Water Blues [mp3 excerpt]. It's not her best song but it is intersting for a couple of reasons. First, it shows how she could use the same music for very different songs. It has almost exactly the same tune as Empty Bed Blues but it is a very different song. The second thing about it that strikes me is that it is the perfect theme song for Hurricane Katrina.
When it thunders and lightnin' and when the wind begins to blow
When it thunders and lightnin' and the wind begins to blow
There's thousands of people ain't got no place to go

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