100 Great Records Of The 1920s, #76.

Bessie Smith
76. Bessie Smith, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out”
(Jimmy Cox)
Columbia 3176D, 1929 · mp3
Bessie Smith was a monster of a woman. I don’t mean she was a paragon of inhuman evil or anything, more in the line of the admiring sportscaster who says “that was a monster of a tackle.” Large in her physical stature, in her appetites, and in every aspect of her performance, she towered over the competition, or rather bulldozed through it with her enormous, world-shaking voice. Not the first of the female blues singers, she quickly became the standard, her bone-rattling moan embodying the spirit of the blues (that is, what people wanted the blues to be, which is all they ever were) much more fully than many of her sweet-voiced contemporaries, who were pop singers or even jazz singers forced into a niche by commercial requirements. Which isn’t to say that Bessie was only a blues singer; she was much more than that. The blues as we understand them today exist because of how Bessie Smith sang. Empress of the Blues, hell; she was the Goddess of the Blues. And like the blues, she was volatile, sexually omnivorous, and possessed of an unearthly, two-fisted dignity that literary academics still recoil from today (cf. Ann Douglas, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan In The 1920s). She was also a vaudevillian, a hard-working star on the blacks-only T.O.B.A. circuit who became the highest-paid black performer of her day. Another black vaudevillian, Jimmy Cox (“the Black Charlie Chaplin”), wrote this song, which isn’t a blues but became one by the force of Bessie’s personality and is still treated that way today, when Eric Clapton plays it for audiences of rich middle-aged white males. But instead of self-pitying miserablism, in Bessie’s performance the song is one of the great ballads of the Depression, which was just getting underway as she sang. Even humming, her voice dominates the woozy, commiserating jazz band behind her. The muted trumpet solo even sounds hesitant, unsure of itself in her presence, and she easily hushes it on returning. She herself was getting to be down and out; her volatility and contempt for her condescending white audience combined to keep her off of Broadway stages where sweeter, brisker singers like Ethel Waters and Adelaide Hall were making a killing. A brief comeback in the 1930s would be cut short when, after a nasty car accident, institutionalized racism in the local hospital killed her. Mighty strange, without a doubt.

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