Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sunday Music: Bessie Smith

This week's top five: Echo and the Bunnymen, Lemuria, Bessie Smith, The Presidents of the United States of America, and Fotheringay.

Here's Smith with one of her signature songs, "St. Louis Blues," in her only known film appearance.


The arrangement - possibly by the song's composer, W. C. Handy - is very atypical for Smith's recorded work, although it may fairly represent what her appearances in larger stage shows may have sounded like. Her recorded career begins with small-group sessions based almost entirely around her singing the melody with only a little improvisation from a horn or two around her alto voice. Later recordings introduce more musicians and fleshed-out arrangements.

Smith occupies that wonderful gap between blues and vocal jazz that I like. She's representative of what's now called "classic female blues," and from my (young) standpoint, it looks like their stories were ignored by blues and jazz historians for being an impure amalgamation too influenced by record companies afraid of black male blues singers (who have always defined the blues tradition). It's become apparent that female singers like Smith were well-regarded and drew huge crowds (not just white record company owners). Smith was included in the Ken Burns's Jazz and her fame and contemporary influence was adequately noted, but that documentary's Whiggish construction of jazz as its own microcosm failed to really tell stories like Smith's (or W. C. Handy's) because it focused too much on their virtuosity and humble beginnings, rather than how they grew as musicians.

Here's Smith with something more representative of her 20s output:


And here she is with back up from a dance band (Buck Washington's in fact):

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