Monday, March 05, 2007

How I Discovered Bessie Smith

I wish I could have seen Bessie Smith in the flesh, maybe performing on stage, but better yet, just singing on a street corner. I wish I could have that thrill of discovery with her, that feeling of witnessing for the first time an artistic talent that you never imagined could exist in the world.

Bessie wasn't just one of the greatest blues singers ever. She invented the form. And she loved to sing. Here's how I wish I could have heard Bessie Smith for the first time:

It's a warm autumn night in 1927, and I'm out walking alone on the south side of Chicago. I'm feeling bored and restless, looking for some fun, some new people, a new experience. I pass an alleyway and hear voices, or should I say A Voice. I peer into the dark and see a small group of people lounging about the pavement, passing a bottle and listening to a big woman--six feet tall, 200 pounds--who's singing like her life depended on it.

I feel a bit shy as I creep up on the group, but I have to hear this woman. No one seems to mind that I've joined them, though, and anyway they're all absorbed in listening to the voice, powerful and free, darkly flawless.

The man I'm standing next to passes a reefer to me, and after a few hits I get so relaxed and fuzzy that the voice surrounds me and sinks into my skin. Who is this woman? Her voice is so big and fat, warm and plain. Sometimes it's a painful shout. But even when the words are sobby sad, the voice feels fun.

Every now and then, the singer stops. She takes a few sips of corn liquor or hits off a reefer, lapse into a pleasant state of oblivion, and waits for inspiration to strike again. Or a plea from her friends to keep going.

"Come on, Bessie, sing Young Woman's Blues."

She laughs, tips back her head, and this comes out:

I’m a young woman and ain’t done runnin’ around.
I’m a young woman and ain’t done runnin’ around.
Some people call me a hobo, some people call me a bum,
Nobody knows my name, nobody knows what I’ve done.
I’m as good as any woman in your town.
I ain’t a high yella, I’m a deep killer brown.
I ain’t gonna marry, ain’t gonna settle down,
I’m gonna drink good moonshine, and run these browns down.
See that long lonesome road, Lord, you know it’s gotta end.
And I’m a good woman and I can get plenty men.

She stops, laughs again, and takes a big swig from the bottle.


Anonymous said...

Did Bessie really have the title for the song at hand in the back alley for these folks and was it really as dry and serious as "Young Woman's Blues"???

Joyce Hanson said...

Dry and serious? You crazy. And why wouldn't she know the titles of her songs, Anonymous? Anyway, I made the whole scene up. A 21st century white girl, so maybe I got some of the details wrong. But I like to imagine that's the way it went down. I do know for a fact that Bessie loved to drink, and sometimes she loved to run away from all her responsibilities (she was the boss lady and had lots of show people on her payroll), get drunk, and sing for the hell of it.