Empress Bessie Smith & the blues

Hello Everyone and a special shout-out to all the music educators in our CREAD community.  We are continuing in our month of celebrating, recognizing and paying tribute to the countless contributions and extraordinary lives of Black people. Nonetheless, on today I want us to consider the blues for a moment.  The blues music is just one of the many musical art forms that Black folks created, along with jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and roll and hip hop.

Truthfully, when you think of American music you should think of Black people. Most recently in an interview pop singer, Bruno Mars put it this way: “When you say ‘black music,’ understand…Black people created it all. Being Puerto Rican, even salsa music stems back to the Motherland [Africa]. So, in my world, black music means everything…It’s what gives America its swag. “


One of the most important and influential contributors to blues music was Bessie Smith. She began singing as a child in Chattanooga, Tennessee as a way to help support her family. In 1912, she joined her brother on the road with his traveling troupe, initially as a dancer.  Ma Rainey was the reigning queen of blues singing at the time. The following year she got her own show performing at the “81” theater in Atlanta.

In 1923, Smith signed a recording contract with Columbia Records and made 160 recordings with the label. She was the highest paid Black entertainer at the time. She continued to grow popular both on the radio and on stage, eventually earning the title, “Empress of the Blues”.  Her music powerfully communicated some of the harsh realities that Blacks faced in terms of personal struggles and more broadly, as disenfranchised people in America. So although historical dates and data reveal one factual explanation for a time period; musical expression reveals the experience of the everyday man and woman.

Knowing about Bessie Smith and her musical career are a good starting point for teaching our students about the significance of Black music in American culture.  They should also know that blues music evolved from the various forms of “roots music” in Black culture including spirituals, work songs, field hollers and country string music.

Teaching about Black music is not just for the music educator though. For example if you are teaching American history you might use Smith’s song, Chicago Bound Blues, to teach about the Great Migration. Having students analyze the lyrics to understand the meaning behind key references in the song and the narrative that it offers about the experience of migration and the separation of families and loved ones.

Chicago Bound Blues

Late last night, I sold away and cried
Late last night, I sold away and cried
Had the blues for Chicago, I just can’t be satisfied

Blues on my brain, my tongue refused to talk
Blues on my brain, my tongue refused to talk
I was followin’ my daddy but my feet refuses to walk

Mean old fireman, cruel old engineer
Lord mean old fireman, cruel old engineer
You took my man and left his mama standing here

Big red headline, tomorrow Defender news
Big red headline, tomorrow Defender news
“Woman dead down home, these old Chicago blues”
I said blues

Music is one of the most important resources that you can bring into your practice. As we have asserted here before that “music is the real textbook”. It is a vital part of our shared American culture and whenever possible it should be incorporated into our classroom practice to provide our students with a richer and multi-faceted understanding of history, language, art, social and political events.

Peace and love good people.


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