"In the recent passing of Bessie Smith, 'Queen of the Blues,' a brilliant chapter in the history of the theatre came to a close." It's the first sentence of St. Clair Bourne's reflection on Smith's legacy, published in the New York Amsterdam News a few weeks after her 1937 death.
And it's a strange way of introducing someone most often thought of as a musical star — but Bourne apparently saw nothing unusual in exploring Smith's formative influence on blues and swing while also describing her as "royalty among theatrical performers."
Nor was Bourne an outlier: Black women blues performers were regularly referred to as "actresses" in the black press — particularly before, but also after, the so-called "race records" industry made them household names. Though the fields of "music" and "theatre" now have their own critics, their own publications and their own academic departments, the two were not always held at such a distance. In spite of my own graduate training in theatre history, I was confused when, blearily propped in front of a microfilm reader, I first saw Smith and her mentor and friend, Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, called actresses (and, at times, as dancers, producers, wardrobe mistresses, monologists and comediennes). These descriptions appeared in "The Stage," a gossipy, shade-throwing showbiz column published in the African American newspaper The Indianapolis Freeman in the early decades of the 20th century. The discovery piqued my curiosity (so much so that I built a book around it). Though actresses have historically been associated with sexual immorality and duplicity, taking the actress label seriously — as Bessie Smith did — draws out two important aspects of early blues performance. First, Bourne's emphasis on "the history of theatre" reminds us that, as scholars Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff have persuasively demonstrated, blues emerged in the popular theatre of the rural South. Second, we see how an embrace of the category of actress allowed Smith and her peers to refashion possibilities for black women and girls on stage at a time when those possibilities were exceptionally constrained.
In the early decades of the 20th century, prior to widespread phonograph and record ownership, the only way most people heard music was "live" (not a term audiences of the time would have used, having nothing to compare it to). Not just sound or song, early theatrical blues performances incorporated choreography, comedy bits, skits and set pieces. They were performed in vaudeville houses on the Theatre Owners Booking Association (TOBA) circuit of Southern and Midwestern cities as well as before racially mixed audiences on the open-air stages of tent and variety shows that toured the rural South, cheek-by-jowl with the animal acts, trapeze artists, tappers and wire walkers of The Rabbit's Foot Minstrels, Tolliver's Smart Set and other companies.
Black women and girls on stage in the early 20th century faced a host of sexist and racist expectations and attitudes. Though "The Stage" was friendly to the idea, many considered "actress" a morally disreputable profession, just one step to the side of "prostitute." What's more, the utter dominance of blackface minstrelsy had primed audiences to see certain character types on the stage — black girls could not escape the Topsy character, nor could black women escape the Mammy or the Wench. Black minstrel performers of the late 19th century had reappropriated the mask of blackface and played, often parodically, with its performance conventions. But whether played as a racial stereotype or as a mockery of that stereotype, the character options for black girls and women remained quite limited.
But Bessie was to change all that. While exceptional, her story was not unusual: orphaned at age nine, she began touring at the age of 14 with Moses Stokes' Traveling Show, where she met Ma Rainey. In this sense, she was not unlike the many black Southern girls who joined touring companies as an alternative to domestic or agricultural labor. These girls and women were ceaseless innovators, experimenting with musical form, comic interludes, and choreography to create a new musical and theatrical genre.
There is no single origin of blues, and I am not here to claim otherwise. But since the blues and folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s we have too often been fed a vision of an itinerant bluesman (you can see him in your mind's eye: an agricultural laborer with a guitar on his back, wandering from town to town) as the first and only singer of the blues. There is no doubt that the musical innovations of the male laborers in East Texas and the Mississippi Delta in the 1890s were extraordinarily significant; and there are significant musicological differences between, for example, Son House and Smith. But an overinvestment in this romantic image has led women blues performers on the theatrical circuit to be deemed mere imitators of a man's artistic invention. Attending to the widespread importance of the tent show highlights the invention, originality and influence of Smith and her peers.
Consider the Mississippi Delta, a geographic location that makes a strong claim as the "home" of the blues. The Delta's enthusiasm for tent shows boggles the imagination: Multiple companies would occupy the same small town for days at a time, all their shows selling out. One could not live and labor in the Delta and remain untouched by this vibrant culture of traveling entertainment, music and dance chronicled by "The Stage." That impact would have been compounded, surely, for anyone working as a musician. Ethnomusicologists have described the influence of Smith's recordings on male Delta musicians, but it is also true that a young Smith regularly appeared "live" on the stages of these Delta towns more than a decade before she recorded a song, singing, dancing and schticking her way to stardom. While it would be challenging if not impossible to prove, it is difficult to imagine that Delta residents such as Muddy Waters (who would become a performer in the Silas Green from New Orleans tent show), Charley Patton or Robert Johnson would not have attended one of these shows or not have been present at the dances that often followed.
If being a black actress during this period was complicated, it was even more so when one performed before racially mixed audiences, as Bessie Smith frequently did. The Southern tent show did not discard minstrelsy — the variety format is a direct retention of the minstrel show. It should come as no surprise, then, that the black intelligentsia of the early 20th century, though supportive of "high" art, looked upon the emergent black entertainment industry, with its close proximity to minstrelsy, with some degree of trepidation. But Smith had no truck with critics. In her own stage career, she found ways to insist on the dignity and stardom of the black actress. Embracing the role of actress, she transformed the possibilities for black women on stage, steering them away from minstrelsy's debasements.
Smith was the kind of actress who was always a star on stage. She never "disappeared into the role" as some actresses do. Her celebrity, power, and value were on display, no matter what character she played. But Smith also used her blues actress persona to make her interior life — her "true" self — permanently unavailable. She was constantly visible, but never gave any interviews, for example. The fact that she was (at least publicly) always playing a role confounded fans and journalists who always wanted more of her, all of her. And it similarly frustrates scholars and fans today who want to know more about what she intended, how she felt, and why she did what she did. It feels like a contradiction: By always inhabiting the actress, Smith maintained an interior life that was untouchable by the outside world.
Playing the actress, then, allowed Smith to flirt her way through the first-person narration of her songs, to confound the certainty of the relationship between a song's "I" and Smith herself. And she wittily used the uncertainty produced by acting to challenge her audience on matters of gossip and hearsay. A litany of self- destructive and hypocritical possibilities, "'T'Aint Nobody's Bizness If I Do" reads on the page as morose, particularly in its final lines, when the narrator suggests that she may remain with an abusive lover who beats her. In performance, though, Smith is upbeat and defiant, the narrator explaining:
There ain't nothin' I can do or nothin' I can say
That folks don't criticize me
But I'm going to do just as I want to anyway
And don't care if they all despise me.
It is tempting to map Smith's own stormy relationships with her lovers onto the lyrics of this song. But Smith couches her lyrics in the conditional. Refusing to confirm what has been said by others, she speaks only in the conditional: "if I do." The proliferation of "ifs" in the song teases the audience, tantalizing them with rumor while simultaneously telling them to butt out: "'T'Ain't Nobody's Bizness." Just as in Ma Rainey's "Prove It On Me Blues," Smith uses the song to tease her audience about what they've heard about her, all the while refusing to set the record "straight."
Acting allowed Smith (and the blueswomen who emulated her) to fashion a model of black womanhood that was full of possibility and, above all, capable of profound transformation. Her legacy lives on in the black women stars who have followed in her footsteps. When we puzzle over, for example, Beyoncé's (or is it Sasha Fierce's?) complex dance of disclosure and privacy, of feminist empowerment and opulent spectacle, we should remember Smith, who, with a group of black girls who grew up in poverty in the Jim Crow South, invented the traditions of black superstardom.
Both on the tent show stage and in publicity photographs, Smith (like Rainey) flaunted the glamour of her stardom with extravagant costumes and jewels. Smith was known as "the Empress of the Blues," and, as Daphne Duval Harrison chronicled in her profoundly influential Black Pearls, she dressed like royalty. Her performance affirmed her birthright: a sense of worth and value that was inherited and entitled rather than earned.
The jewels, sumptuous fabrics and fashionable trends that Smith wore on stage were often at odds with the set designs for the tent show, which relied on scenic tropes from minstrelsy and plantation musicals: magnolia trees, broken fence lines, cotton fields. When Smith appeared dressed for a Harlem nightclub appearance, she looked distinctly out of place — which was, of course, part of the point. The incongruity of this fashionable and bejeweled woman in a cotton field made the familiar conventions of blackness on stage seem strange — and made new possibilities available for black girls and women who no longer wanted to play Topsy or Mammy.
Surprisingly, Smith did play a mammy figure in her act for a time. This performance is documented by a rarely-circulated 1924 photograph of the star clad in a kerchief and polka- dotted dress, surrounded by her niece Ruby Walker and several young men, a side band known as the Dancing Sheiks. What is going on here? There is so much we don't know about this act. Smith-as-Mammy does not seem to square with the defiant woman who sang "I've Been Mistreated and I Don't Like It," the woman who physically attacked a Klan member who attempted to disrupt her show. Perhaps the demands of white audiences were too formidable for her to reject. Perhaps she took on the role in an attempt to parody it.
One thing we do know is that Smith asserted herself as the star, even—perhaps especially—when playing the mammy figure. Ruby Walker reported to Chris Albertson, Smith's biographer, that Smith used her broom to comically sweep the chorus line of young girls off the stage at the end of the act, leaving her alone on the stage. Even playing the mammy character, nobody upstaged Bessie. And then, just as quickly as she appeared, the mammy was gone, replaced by a regal and glittering queen, thanks to Smith's lightning-fast costume change. Reminding her audience that she could put on and take off roles as she chose, Smith sidestepped an old type, making room for the new.
Paige McGinley is Associate Professor in the Performing Arts Department at Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author of Staging the Blues: From Tent Shows to Tourism.