It is no secret that history reflects biases. People choose what to save and publish, therefore shedding light on certain individuals while erasing and marginalizing others. This month is Black History Month, a time when we give special consideration for Black figures in history. This posted focuses on the how talented musicians were obscured in the early 20th century.
When people think of popular blues/jazz artists, one musician that comes to mind is Louis Armstrong, who changed the way people sang and played instruments.
“My whole life, my whole soul, my whole spirit is to blow that horn.”
Louis Armstrong was inspired by many, potentially, lesser known musicians, one such artist was Bessie Smith.
Bessie Smith, the “Empress of the Blues,” brought a new level of sophistication in the music business. The urgency and emotion in her voice uncovered the hardships and social tension that she experienced.
Smith grew up poverty stricken in the 1890s in Tennessee. Orphaned at a young age, her sister took in laundry to make ends meet. Smith began singing at a young age, and by 16 she met the blues singer Ma Rainey and began touring, gaining fame in the process, even recording music with the young Louis Armstrong.
Featured in August 23, 1920 Perth Amboy Evening News.
Throughout her career, Smith sold millions of records. Her version of the song “Downhearted Blues” hit nationwide in 1923. She also became known for singing, “Backwater Blues,” “St. Louis Blues,” “Careless Love Blues,” “Young Woman’s Blues,” “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home,” “You’ve Been a Good Ole Wagon”, just to name a few. “St. Louis Blues” is featured in the image above and below, covered by Marion Harris and Ted Lewis, respectively.
Featured in February 16, 1923 Perth Amboy Evening News.
Although Columbia sold millions of Smith’s records, she was not paid royalties for her music, therefore receiving little compensation. This reflects a larger picture of the exploitation and racism in the record industry.
I challenge you this month to learn more about the origins of these songs advertised in the newspapers. I guarantee you you will find artists who have been hidden from the spotlight because of racial inequality.
“Biography.” (2020). Louis Armstrong Home Museum, www.louisarmstronghouse.org/biography/.
Blakemore, Erin. (2018). “How ‘Race Records’ Turned Black Music Into Big Business.” History.com, www.history.com/news/race-records-bessie-smith-big-bill-broonzy-music-business.
Thompkins, Gwen. “Forebears: Bessie Smith, The Empress Of The Blues.” (2018). NPR, www.npr.org/2018/01/05/575422226/forebears-bessie-smith-the-empress-of-the-blues.