Back To Bessie

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The release of “Back Water Blues” just as catastrophic floods struck along the Mississippi helped make it a huge hit on her next tour, through North Carolina during the 1927 tent season. She was in peak form during that tour, strong, hard-working, and sober. In Concord a terrified band member told her during her performance that hooded men from the Ku Klux Klan were outside trying to collapse the tent. According to witnesses, Bessie went out and faced down a dozen Klansmen herself, cursing them until they walked away. She then strode back in to finish the show.

The revue that had met such enthusiasm in the South was less well received when she took it to the Grand Theater in Chicago. The big-city black public was no longer amused by the broad humor and racial stereotypes of black vaudeville. Bessie’s reception in Chicago was disappointing, but her show sold out in smaller Midwestern cities. Public tastes might change, but her commanding presence and awesome talent had never failed her yet.

There are no detailed written accounts of her live performances, but people who saw her have said that she was a versatile artist who often stretched her songs to fifteen or twenty minutes, displaying her ability not only as a singer but as an actress, comedienne, dancer, and mime. Instead of doing her own tent show in 1928, she played the sagging TOBA theater circuit. Her tour made a good profit, and the TOBA board decided to advance her three thousand dollars to mount two new shows for them. Believing Jack’s claim that he was her manager, they gave her money to him. Then, after five years of marital cat-and-mouse games, Jack at last committed an act of betrayal impossible to forgive.

He became involved with a singer named Gertrude Saunders and put up part of Bessie’s TOBA money to finance a show starring his new girlfriend. Bessie heard the news in a bar, fled, and broke down and wept in her hotel room. “That’s the first and the last time I ever seen Bessie cry like that,” Ruby said. After her performance that night, still wearing her feathered gown over her ever-present carpenter’s apron full of cash, Bessie grabbed Ruby and took a cab to Columbus, Ohio, where the Gertrude Saunders show was playing.

She located Jack and Gertrude’s hotel and burst into their room. Gertrude had the good fortune to be out. Bessie fought violently with Jack, wrecked the room, and emerged covered with blood and feathers to take the cab straight back to Detroit. The marriage was over.

Bessie was sleepless and depressed after the breakup, but important developments in her career soon distracted her. She was offered a starring role in a Broadway show, a miraculous break for a black performer. Though drama critics praised her own performance in Pansy, which opened on May 14, 1929, they unanimously panned the play. Brooks Atkinson called it “the worst show of all time.” The day his review came out Bessie dragged herself to the studio to record her deeply felt version of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.”

She quickly bounced back from the flop, accepting W. C. Handy’s offer to play the lead in a short movie based on a song of his that she had made her own, “St. Louis Blues.” The seventeen-minute film was shot in Astoria, Queens, just weeks after Pansy had closed. Bessie plays a woman driven to drink by her cheating lover. She catches him with a young woman in a room in a gambling house, throws the woman out, gets knocked down by her boyfriend, grabs a bottle of liquor, takes a swig, and sings a verse a cappella . James P. Johnson joins in on piano, and the scene shifts to a smoky nightclub. Bessie leans on the bar and sings into her drink, accompanied now by a large choir, a jazz band, and strings. Her boyfriend shows up, and, elated just to be with him again, she dances with him, oblivious as he slips her bankroll out of her stocking top. Once he’s got her money, he shoves her away and struts off. Back at the bar she stares into her drink and ends the song.

The film was shown often between 1929 and 1932. It seems then to have been forgotten until 1950, when a group of well-meaning white liberals petitioned the NAACP to destroy it because of its portrayal of blacks as lowlifes. Fortunately it survived—the only existing footage of one of the greatest performers of our century.

By the summer the film was made, most theaters had had sound projectors installed. The writing was on the wall for all vaudeville, and the TOBA was on the verge of collapse. The stock market crashed, but to people like Bessie it didn’t seem important right away. Talking pictures were a much bigger worry.