Celebrating Bessie Smith: “Empress of the Blues”

Portrait of Bessie Smith holding feathers. Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1936. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Van Vechten’s portrait of Bessie Smith is also featured in the Library’s online exhibit, Jazz Singers.

It’s International Jazz Day! When our friends from the Prints & Photographs Division let us know that they’d be featuring favorite jazz-related items today on their blog, Picture This, I couldn’t let the day go by without a related post. Of course, the Music Division is home to outstanding jazz collections that document the life and work of influential jazz artists and composers like Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Taylor, Anita O’Day, and many others. One of our most popular jazz collections, the William P. Gottlieb Collection, consists entirely of photographs taken between 1938 and 1948, all freely available for download in the Gottlieb online collection. You can view an entire list of the Music Division’s special collections with links to finding aids on the Performing Arts Reading Room website, or search across all Library of Congress finding aids by keyword using the Search Finding Aids Database.

Of the various photographs featured in today’s Picture This blog post, my personal favorite would have to be Carl Van Vechten’s portrait of blues singer Bessie Smith (1894-1937). Smith was one of the highest paid black entertainers of the 1920s, earning the nickname “Empress of the Blues.” She was among the first African American singers to be recorded (starting in 1923), and her recordings helped to spark an interest in blues music that transformed the genre from a regional tradition to a national trend. Van Vechten not only photographed Smith, but also wrote a Vanity Fair article about Smith in 1926 that aimed to introduce white audiences to the vocalist, as well as the blues. Beyond Smith’s commercial success in her own lifetime as well as her lasting legacy and influence on jazz music, the Empress has been celebrated both on the stage and on screen in Edward Albee’s 1959 one-act play, The Death of Bessie Smith (inspired by a story surrounding Smith’s fatal car crash), as well as in the 2015 HBO film, Bessie, starring Queen Latifah as Smith.

Portrait of Bessie Smith. Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1936. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Bessie Smith’s biggest musical hits included “Downhearted Blues,” “St. Louis Blues,” and “ ‘Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do,”  to name a few. In addition to these hits, Bessie Smith also wrote or co-wrote dozens of songs. We hold two folders full of original Smith lead sheets deposited for copyright in the 1920s/early 1930s, one folder containing published copyright deposits (call number M1630.2.S) and the other containing unpublished copyright deposits (call number M1630.2.S Case). Smith wrote “Back Water Blues” after negotiating a flood on tour in 1927. In his book, Bessie, Chris Albertson included a commentary by Smith’s sister-in-law, Maud, who often traveled with her and recollected: “After we left Cincinnati, we came to this little town, which was flooded, so everybody had to step off the train into little rowboats that took us to where we were staying…so they started hollerin’, ‘Miss Bessie, please sing the Back Water Blues, please sing the Back Water Blues.’ Well, Bessie didn’t know anything about any ‘Back Water Blues,’ but after we came back home…Bessie came in the kitchen one day, and she had a pencil and paper, and she started singing and writing. That’s when she wrote the ‘Back Water Blues’ – she got the title from those people down South.” (p. 146)


Thanks to the Library’s Poetry of America website (a collection of field recordings featuring award-winning contemporary poets reading an American poem of his or her choosing), you can listen to poet Marilyn Chin recite the lyrics to Bessie Smith’s “Back Water Blues”:

I’m thankful for noticing the Van Vechten portrait in today’s Picture This blog post – a single glimpse prompted me to revisit our Bessie Smith collection holdings and reflect on this powerhouse woman, one of the great feminists in American music history. I hope coming across this blog post might inspire some readers to delve further into her music, life story, and influence. Eager to read more about Smith? I can offer a few recommendations:

A small sample of the many resources we hold about Bessie Smith.

Albertson, Chris. Bessie. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. Call number ML420.S667 A7 2003

Bratcher, Melanie E. Words and Songs of Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and Nina Simone: Sound Motion, Blues Spirit, and African Memory. New York: Routledge, 2007. Call number ML4379.B73 2007

Brooks, Edward. The Bessie Smith Companion: A Critical and Detailed Appreciation of the Recordings. New York: Da Capo Press, 1982. Call number 420.S667 B76 1982

Davis, Angela Y. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. New York: Pantheon Books, 1998. Call number ML3521.D355 1998

Scott, Michelle R. Blues Empress in Black Chattanooga: Bessie Smith and the Emerging Urban South. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008. Call number ML420.S667 S36 2008

This is only a handful of the books we hold about Bessie Smith, blues singers, and women in jazz; explore more by searching the Library of Congress online catalog. More questions? Don’t hesitate to email our music reference specialists via our Ask a Librarian reference service. Happy International Jazz Day to all!

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