Some say that Bessie Smith was the most popular female blues singer during the 1920s and 1930s. Bessie was the highest paid African-American performer in the 1920s. She recorded successful songs for Columbia, collaborated with Louis Armstrong, and sang and toured with top bands and jazz performers. Her recording of “Downhearted Blues” sold around 800,000 copies. She recorded 160 songs in 10 years. By the mid 1930s her career was waning a bit, but she was still on the road. On the night of September 26, 1937, she died as the result of as automobile accident in Mississippi.
Bessie was born in Chattanooga, TN. Today, there’s a large Bessie Smith Cultural Center on Martin Luther King Boulevard in this city with a permanent tribute to her. This Center opened in 1983 as the Chattanooga African-American Museum. Today it serves 3 purposes: it’s still a museum, has frequent temporary exhibits, and keeps Smith known to visitors. I asked Marty Mitchell, Program Coordinator, if there was still interest in an African-American singer who has been dead for almost 80 years. “Yes!” she enthusiastically reported. “Tour groups come in here all the time.” Bessie, she told me, is still popular in Europe, especially in England. Europeans want to see the tribute to her. Locals come in for the other exhibits.
Ruth and I looked at the one that Marty and Park Ranger Chris Barr were about to take down about the life and career of James R. Mapp, a local Civil Rights activist. Mapp attended the mass rally in Washington DC in 1963 with Martin Luther King Jr. and led the NAACP. This tribute closed on October 31, and Mary and Chris showed us part of the exhibit that they would be putting in its place about the 14th Amendment. I predict it will be far more interesting than it sounds and popular. Its sponsors hope to explore the 15th Amendment next year. I asked why the museum wasn’t opened on Saturdays, and Marty told me that it would be after February 1. I was puzzled. She read my mind and explained, “Football season.”
Ruth and I moved on to the museum exhibits, which were typical but interesting. I really enjoyed the sports display that informed me that a baseball player by the name of Willie Mays played for the Chattanooga Choo Choos when he was 16.
We crossed to the other side of the entry and saw the Bessie Smith materials. As a child she lived in the proverbial one room shack in Chattanooga with her large family. Her father, a Baptist minister, died when she was young. So did her mother. With her brother’s encouragement, Bessie moved to Atlantic City and started performing. In 1937 she and her driver, who was also her lover, slammed into the back of a truck at 2 am. Bessie, one of her arms completely torn off, eventually bled to death. Her treatment was controversial. If this accident happened today, she probably would survive.
Below is Bessie’s valuable (John Jacob Astor imported them) Spinet Square Grand Piano.