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Bessie Smith

American blues singer born in Chattanooga, Tennessee

Armando Bellmas
Armando Bellmas
Bessie Smith

Today on Ecléctico you're listening to Bessie Smith, a legend and pioneer of the blues. Her influence on modern blues, jazz, and rock 'n' roll is major and foundational. That's remarkable considering her golden era was the 1920s and 1930s. You'll go much deeper with a couple of paragraphs from a book by Jackie Kay, Bessie Smith: A Poet’s Biography of a Blues Legend, excerpted on Literary Hub.

"Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" by Bessie Smith
1929 | American blues singer born in Chattanooga, Tennessee

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There are some people whose voices ring out across the centuries, who, even after they have gone, possess a strange ability to still be effortlessly here. Bessie’s voice has that quality. Unsettled most of her life, she still unsettles. Try to imagine asking her about anything that is going on today, from the floods, to the climate crisis, to the coronavirus, to the Black Lives Matter movement, to the Me Too movement, to the refugee crisis, and you would find an answer in her rich and resonant blues narratives. We could match any of today’s troubles and anxieties to her music. The blues are not past. Bessie’s blues are current.

Her narratives are even eerily prescient—she sang about floods, about sexual abuse, about financial crashes, about sudden changes in circumstances, changes in love. There isn’t anything that life could currently throw at her that would surprise her. Her blues sought the truth—the truth in all its multiplicity; the hard truth, the strangest truth, the supernatural truth. The whole truth has a different ring to it in the world of Bessie’s blues. In these surreal times, where distinguishing the truth is a challenge, Bessie’s voice has a pure and true ring. She is telling it like it is. There’s nothing fake about her. And because she was not afraid to bear witness to her times, to rising racism and the Ku Klux Klan, to inequalities and class differences, to hypocrisy and the dangers of celebrity, she also manages to bear witness to our times. Pioneers don’t just lead the way in their own time; they continue to refract and reflect our time. Pioneers can perform the magic trick of being contemporary in any time.

United States

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