Back To Bessie

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Billie Holiday made me want to listen to Bessie Smith. I heard my first Billie Holiday record when I was studying in Paris in 1969, and I immediately became obsessed with her songs, her singing, and her life. When I read that Bessie Smith was one of got hold of by the woman who is called the Empress of the Blues.

 

Billie Holiday made me want to listen to Bessie Smith. I heard my first Billie Holiday record when I was studying in Paris in 1969, and I immediately became obsessed with her songs, her singing, and her life. When I read that Bessie Smith was one of got hold of by the woman who is called the Empress of the Blues.

I couldn’t understand at first what Billie thought she’d learned from Bessie. Bessie’s sound was certainly impressive; she had a big rich voice compared with Billie’s small, rough one. Both women had great presence, that special quality of seeming to be right there in the room singing to you, but while Billie crept up on you, Bessie came at you full throttle. Bessie’s earthbound songs of longing for love, sex, money, revenge, home, and better times seemed barren and monotonous to me next to the romantic and sophisticated ones Billie recorded just fifteen years later, and Billie’s band swung while Bessie’s plodded. I understood that Bessie was a key artist in the development of jazz singing; I just didn’t respond to her music.

Her voice was huge, but her use or it was remarkably nimble, her timing dynamic, her phrasing full of surprises.

Billie had made me want to do more than just listen to other singers. She made me want to become one myself. My experience consisted of six years in school choirs, two roles in civic theater musicals, and a few weeks of singing her songs on long, solitary walks through the parks of Paris. I waited for this crazy desire to fade, but it wouldn’t.

I moved to Rome, rented a room, and made the rounds of the seedy little nightclubs near the Via Veneto. I introduced myself as an American singer available for bookings, but the street-wise club owners and musicians just smiled, shook their heads, and told me I shouldn’t be out alone at night. Discouraged, I eked out a living as a translator and teacher.

Through one of my students I met a well-known Italian jazz musician who had been inspired by the records of Sidney Bechet to take up the soprano saxophone. He didn’t find it at all strange that Billie Holiday had made me want to be a singer, but he insisted that if I were really serious, I would need a thorough foundation in blues and jazz, starting with the first great singer, Bessie Smith. In the dead of the Roman winter, I went back to Bessie.

In paris I had been a student, but in rome I was just another young foreign woman living alone. Italians were both friendlier and nosier than the French, and people often asked me what I was doing there. I had begun to wonder myself. Words in Bessie’s songs that had meant nothing to me the year before were great comfort and inspiration to me now. “I’m a young woman, and ain’t done runnin’ ’round,” she sang somberly in “Young Woman’s Blues,” the song of hers that first broke through to me. “Some people call me a hobo / some call me a bum. Nobody knows my name / nobody knows what I’ve done / I’m as good as any woman in your town.” Pride, sorrow, and hope rang out in her mighty voice—and in my own heart—as she concluded, “See that long, lonesome road / Lord, you know, it’s got ta end / and I’m a good woman / and I can get plenty men.”

Once I identified with her as a woman, I became interested in the life she lived and sang about: poverty and hard labor (“Work Horse Blues”), prison (“Jail House Blues”), homesickness (“Muddy Water [a Mississippi Moan]”), catastrophic floods (“Backwater Blues”), sexual betrayal (“St. Louis Blues”), gambling (“Follow the Deal on Down”), disillusionment (“Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”), despair (“Wasted Life Blues”), and hard-drinking good times (“Gimme a Pigfoot [and a Bottle of Beer]”). I believed I had finally discovered what Billie learned from her: honesty, directness, a refusal to be anything or anyone but who she was. I came to love Bessie Smith not just for her sandblaster sound and aggressively honest music but for being the vibrant, unrepentant woman who came charging off the spinning vinyl to claim a permanent place in my life.

It was only when I tried to imitate her that I realized how complex her “simple” singing was. If her voice was huge and heavy, her use of it was remarkably nimble. Her timing was solid, dynamic, and exciting, no matter how little rhythmic support she got from her musicians. Her phrasing was full of surprises, some words compressed, others tantalizingly strung out. She took oddly placed— and oddly effective—little breaths and pauses before a word or even just a syllable, sometimes for narrative emphasis, sometimes because she seemed to savor the sound itself. She would twist out an evocative word for up to six notes to dramatize it: home, hate, long, alone . There was honest heartbreak in those vowels.