In 1974, the artist Romare Bearden made a collage with a woman at its center. One arm bent above her head, yellow flowers in her hair to match her skirt and heels, she casually yet clearly commands an orchestra of men. The image, titled Empress of the Blues, paid homage to Bessie Smith, and it captured Smith's ability to rule the glamorous stages of Jazz Age Harlem no less than the juke joints and tent shows of the rural South. But on another level, Bearden's creation of this collage in the 1970s also reflected Smith's commanding afterlife, the sway she still held over black artists several decades after her death.
While Smith was among the most famous and highly paid black entertainers of her day, that status alone does not explain her impact on Bearden, who included her in several collages, or over the many other African American artists who cited Smith's influence on their work. Richard Wright and James Baldwin both credited Smith with attuning to the logic of the blues and to the music of black speech. Billie Holiday and Mahalia Jackson both expressed their debts to her, although they used her example to forge very different aesthetics. Smith became a polarizing figure in Amiri Baraka's 1964 play Dutchman, where a black man tells a white femme fatale, "If Bessie Smith had killed some white people, she wouldn't have needed [her] music." The poet and critic Sherley Anne Williams published a long poem devoted to Smith in 1982. The black Scottish writer Jackie Kay wrote her own Smith-inspired book-length meditation on art and identity in 1997.
Part of Smith's lasting appeal was visual. Kay tells of gazing for hours, as a child, at an album cover featuring her gorgeous brown-skinned face. Smith was a spectacular looking person as well as a mesmerizing performer — a dancer, comedian, and powerhouse vocalist whose costuming involved opulent jewelry and a headpiece that one critic described as a cross between a chandelier and a football helmet. She was unparalleled in her ability to paint a picture with words — to sing, with scandalous candor, about her "good jelly roll" and her desire to put cheating lovers in "the graveyard." She and her accompanists often used the technique of word-painting to tell blues stories with almost cinematic clarity. In "Backwater Blues," Smith sings of people who "rowed a little boat about five miles across the pond" while trying to survive a flood: She heaves the line forward, while pianist James P. Johnson plays little trills to evoke a boat amidst the outsized waves.
Bearden's musical picture illuminates what I tend to think of as Smith's pictorial music: her extremely precise, almost painterly, approach to the vocal blues. Just as Bearden's modernist collages exposed the basic components of visual art — color, shape, line, contrast — Smith's body of work exposed the DNA of chord progressions, variations, slides and slurs that constituted the blues. Bearden's scissor work attunes us to the clean lines, broad contours, tonal contrasts, and subtle shadings of Smith's songs — the way she spins simple quarter notes into announcements and carves musical phrases into distinct shapes by easing them down with a sigh. Her work, while intensely expressive, is also a primer on musical form: This is what a whole note should be, this is a blue note, a half-rest. She could sing slow and easy, blurring her pitch and lagging behind the beat. But then, she was precise even about her imprecision.
Precision is a concept that seldom figures in discussions of the blues. The genre instead magnetizes assumptions about naturalness, rawness, a rejection of respectability and an impulse to let it all hang out. While these qualities can play an important role in blues performance, the appearance of artlessness is its own kind of craft. This often gets missed especially when it comes to the work of black women artists, who are often lauded for broaching taboo subjects (love, sex), while men are celebrated for innovative technique. But Smith was both an emotional genius and a master technician. And she became a creative touchstone for other artists in part for how she made vivid, almost visualizable, the blueprint of the blues.
"Them's Graveyard Words," a 1927 recording in which Smith warns an abusive lover who has taken up with another woman that she is coming to get him, is a lesson in musical timing. The song begins like a dirge, with two funereal horns and a piano that figuratively bury the man before Smith even sings a note. She echoes the morose tone until she tells us what her man has told her: "That he done bought some gal a new fur coat and she's done taken my place." Now she turns the song into a proclamation, jumping in ahead of the beat as if she can't wait to convey her message: "Tell him that I'll fix him sure as two and two is four, 'cause them is graveyard words," "Go and tell him that he's slowly dyin', 'cause them is graveyard words."
A year earlier, she had deployed a very different, languorous style in "Baby Doll." That song details the "funny feeling round my heart" she gets after being hit by "Cupid's dart":
I went to see the doctor the other day, he said all's well as well could be,
But I says, 'Doctor, you don't know really what's worrying me:
I wanna be somebody's baby doll so I can get my lovin' all the time.'
She lets the tempo sag and the lyrics droop. This pictorial approach to timing and intonation makes her seem not limp so much as weary, wrung out with desire. Yet the lament also envelops a delicious joke: that to be somebody's "baby doll" is not at all what it sounds like; it's not about female subservience but about having a lover who is always on call for you, ready to give you "lovin' all the time."
"I woke up this morning with an awful aching head," Smith sings at the start of the "Empty Bed Blues." As if to convey the effort it takes to sing these blues, never mind to live them, she breaks up the word "awful" by breathing right in the middle of it. She similarly breathes between the phrases "my new man had left me" and "just a room and an empty bed" to isolate the song's premise, the empty bed. Still, she cheers herself up in the next verse by recalling her lover's sexual prowess — which she describes in the present tense, as if he were still there. "He thrills me night and day," she sings, jumping a major forth from "thrills" to "me." Describing him as a "deep sea diver with a stroke that can't go wrong," she projects a deeper tone on "stroke" and brightens the "can't" into a smile.
What we hear, then, in Smith's music is both feeling and form. Her ability to articulate both was, and remains, a rare achievement: Think of how often musicians in any genre are criticized for cultivating technique over connection, or for singing or playing with plenty of heart but not enough skill. Smith gives us both. Her status as an empathic modernist technician helps explain her influence on other black singers, painters, and poets — artists who are just as concerned with the stories they tell as with the way they tell them.
Bearden, for his part, returned to Smith as a subject for decades. In a 1960 triptych entitled "Homage to Duke, Bessie and Louis," he distilled the singer down to just a face and dark hair adorned with a white flower. He took a more mimetic approach in a 1980 tribute to the same three artists by including a photograph of Smith amid the colored paper and paint. But Bearden's Empress of the Blues is special for how it suspends the singer between the specificity of photographic realism and the generic nature of abstraction — in other words, moves her into the realm of myth. Smith stands out before the ensemble, but she also blends in seamlessly with it. Her hand cups a flower that echoes the shape of a trumpet; her chocolate brown arms are the exact shade of the piano and bass. That yellow skirt stands out, though. Look closely and you'll notice how sheer it is. Look at her eyes cutting away to something you can't see, and you'll realize that she doesn't care. Empress of the Blues: a woman turned star on her way to becoming a myth. She is working for that legacy, and having fun.
What Smith's biographer Chris Albertson calls her "eventful delivery" of a song — her ability to make each line, note and lyric its own little moment — signals Smith's total commitment to the blues idiom, and to her own artistic vision. She sounds like a woman of conviction — like the star who once famously faced down the KKK at a tent show in North Carolina; knocked a white hostess (Fania Marinoff) to the floor when the woman insisted on hugging her and made her way through the thicket of Jim Crow America in feathers and fur. Stunning as she was in her visual and theatrical presentation, her singing itself made a vivid sonic imprint. That imprint, finally, carried a political charge in an era when black performers were disembodied through the medium of phonograph recordings. Straining against the invisibilizing thrust of that technology, Smith confronted listeners with an embodied blueprint for the blues and an irreproducible feeling for them that could not be bought or sold.
Emily Lordi is an associate professor of English at Vanderbilt and the author of three books: Black Resonance, Donny Hathaway Live, and, forthcoming in 2020, The Meaning of Soul.