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Each week on the Junior Curators blog, we travel back in time to a different place in Tennessee history. Stories may be about a famous person, place or event from Tennessee’s past. They will include things like priceless artifacts, pictures, videos, and even some games. Be sure to better understand the story by answering the questions at the end of each post.
After learning the story, be sure to share what you've learned with your parents, family, or friends. Try making your own exhibit about it, shooting a movie, or writing a story about it. Let your creativity run wild!
by Matthew Gailani
You may already know that Tennessee is famous for its music. Nashville is “Music City,” Memphis is the “Home of the Blues,” and Bristol is the “Birthplace of Country Music.” Tennessee artists have been so important to the history of music in the United States that many of them are known just by their nicknames. Elvis Presley was known as the “King.” W.C Handy was known as the “Father of the Blues.” Johnny Cash was the “Man in Black.” But none of them were an empress. There was only one empress, and she was Bessie Smith, the “Empress of the Blues.”
Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on April 15, 1894. Bessie was born into poverty, and by the time she was a young girl, both of her parents had passed away. One way Bessie and her brother earned money was by performing music on street corners in Chattanooga. Bessie’s life changed forever when she joined a group of traveling performers in 1912. One of her fellow performers was the famous Gertrude “Ma” Rainey. Ma was known as “the Mother of the Blues,” and she helped teach Bessie. The Blues is a type of music that originated in the South in the late 1800’s. Its origins are in songs sung by enslaved African Americans before the Civil War. Its lyrics are often about sadness or hard times. This was the music that made Bessie Smith famous.
In 1923, Bessie signed a contract with the record company, Columbia Records. She also performed at different theatres across the country. Some of her most famous songs were “Down Hearted Blues” and “Beale Street Blues.” At the time, Columbia Records was producing what were known as “Race Records.” These were records that were produced and targeted towards African American audiences but had many white listeners, too. These records were created during the time of segregation in the United States. Even the audiences for the theatre performances were segregated.
Eventually, Bessie Smith’s fame led to her being known as the “Empress of the Blues.” However, in 1929 the Great Depression hit. This hurt her career, but it did not prevent her from performing. Tragically, Bessie was killed in 1937 after a car accident in Mississippi. She passed away at the age of 43, but her legacy lives on. She has influenced countless musicians and is still the “Empress of the Blues.”
Poverty: To be very poor.
Originated: To come from or have beginnings in.
Contract: A written agreement.
Segregation: To separate or set someone apart. In this example, to separate people based on the color of their skin.
Where was Bessie Smith born?
Name one musician who influenced Bessie Smith.
How do you think poverty and being orphaned as a young girl impacted her desire to play the blues?
How do you think the Great Depression and segregation affected Bessie Smith’s career?
Listen to Bessie Smith sing “Downhearted Blues” on YouTube here:
To learn more about another famous blues musician, read our blog on W.C. Handy “the Father of the Blues.”
Matthew Gailani is an Educator at the Tennessee State Museum.