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Sheet Music and Pic of the Week: Happy Birthday Bessie Smith!

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Carl Van Vechten Bessie Smith Gelatin silver print, 1936 Prints & Photographs Division LC-USZ62-100863

Legendary blues singer Bessie Smith was born on this day in 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Portions of this blog post were taken from the online exhibit, American Treasures of the Library of Congress.

Bessie Smith gained immediate success in 1923 with her first recording “Down Hearted Blues”/”Gulf Coast Blues.” Her renditions of Negro life in the South earned Smith the title “Empress of the Blues.” She performed mainly in black theaters, but she did sing one evening at the New York apartment of Carl Van Vechten, a writer and amateur photographer who frequented Harlem nightclubs.

This copyright deposit manuscript of “Wasted Life Blues“, in the hand of an unknown copyist, gives credit for the song to Smith’s husband, Jack Gee, but when Smith recorded it, she claimed credit for it (and therefore the royalties from sales of the recording) herself; credit for Jack Gee has been crossed out and “Bessie Smith” substituted in pencil.

Bessie Smith, “Wasted Life Blues.” Manuscript copy, 1929. Music Division

This piece is just one of a baker’s dozen of Smith’s copyright deposit manuscripts that you can find in the Music Division. Additional titles include “Shipwreck blues,” “Safety mamma,” and a song that could easily have been sung on Broadway this year, “Spider man blues.”


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