The American South that Bessie Smith lived and worked in was one of little opportunity and great violence for African-Americans. Smith was born just twenty-nine years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed African-American slaves, and the Ku Klux Klan was a powerful presence. Born into dire poverty in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1894, Smith scratched her way out of the squalor of the black slums of the city and became a success by pursuing one of the few means of success open to African-Americans in the south: the world of vaudeville and minstrels. From 1912 to 1920, Bessie Smith joined a number of "tent shows," traveling vaudeville shows that took place under outdoor tents. Smith's stint as a tent performer was so successful–people waited in line for hours to purchase tickets for her shows–that she had an extensive fan base even before she recorded her first song for Columbia Records in 1923.
Smith, a moody and coarse woman, became the most successful blues singer of her time. The years between 1920 and the stock market crash of 1929 were the good years for the blues. Performers like Mamie Smith, Ethel Waters, Ma Rainey, and Memphis Minnie were stars, and they sold thousands of records. The Roaring Twenties, though, meant something very different in the South than it did in the North. While the South struggled to adjust to a new social system and to the Reconstruction of its great, demoralized cities, the North flourished. The Northern Migration of blacks from the South into the industrial cities of the North and Northeast fundamentally changed the character of those cities.
The year 1920 was the first year of Prohibition, but Smith was a heavy drinker nonetheless. An alcoholic for most of her life, Smith's favorite haunts were often speakeasies or "buffets"–sex clubs that featured dancers and performers who performed live sex acts on stage. Prohibition hardly put a damper on the young, exuberant decade that proceeded WWI and, in fact, may even have been a catalyst.
Bessie Smith has long been considered a symbol of the racism of the south, since the legend surrounding her untimely death in 1937 in a car accident claims that Bessie died because she was turned away from a white hospital rather than because of the severity of her injuries. Because she had no desire to join white society and had no ambition to be a success in the white world, Smith was considered a renegade, although she would prove to be ahead of her time. She was also deeply suspicious of Northern blacks, whom she felt tried too hard to please and imitate whites. Many of her contemporaries achieved success in the white music and acting world, performing on Broadway and in Hollywood films. Smith, however, who was dark-skinned, was often considered "too rough"–a euphemism for "too black"–by Broadway and Hollywood directors, who preferred to cast lighter-skinned African-Americans. This issue would haunt Smith for the rest of her life.
Nevertheless, Bessie Smith was the most popular and most successful blues singer of her day. The 1920s were a decade in which it was difficult for any woman to be independent, yet Smith managed both her own career and the career of her troupe members. For most of the twenties, Smith's records sold hundreds of thousands of copies. When the Stock Market crashed in 1929, however, Smith's career went downhill.
The Great Depression hit Smith hard. She had just divorced her husband, Jack Gee, and had been cut from her Columbia contract after nine years and one hundred sixty songs. She tried to reestablish herself by performing in traveling revues, and she was on her way to one in September 1937 when the car she was riding in crashed into a parked truck outside Memphis, TN. Her arm was nearly severed and she died of massive blood loss. Bessie Smith was forty-three years old.
Bessie Smith influenced a number of jazz singers of the 1930's and 1940's, including Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, and even rock stars of the 1960s, like Janis Joplin. It was Joplin, in fact, who paid for a headstone for Bessie Smith's grave, which had gone unmarked for nearly forty years.