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.
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