African American Studies Bessie Smith
Melanie R. Hill
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0072


Understanding the literary pen as a fundamental tool that writes the narrative of black existence while also analyzing how the black woman’s voice in blues music represents black life is essential in exhibiting utile productions of knowledge and expressive culture in both literature and music. Known for her distinguished classification in music as the “Empress of the Blues,” Bessie Smith was a prominent blues singer of the 1920s. Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1894, Smith began singing as a street performer and danced in minstrel shows. In 1923, Smith was signed to Columbia Records, becoming the highest-paid blues singer of this epoch. Known for her classic recordings from “Down Hearted Blues” and “Back-Water Blues” to “St. Louis Blues,” “Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl,” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” the 1920s and 1930s marked the zenith of Smith’s performance career. Not only was Smith constantly touring as a blues singer in the 1920s, but she also starred in the 1929 film St. Louis Blues. Smith produced 160 recordings with Columbia Records, and her collaborations with Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, and Benny Goodman, respectively a trumpeter, a pianist, and a clarinetist, heightened her blues/jazz mark in the entertainment industry. Smith’s voice resonates in the vocal performances of Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, and Janis Joplin. Many scholars have paid homage to Bessie Smith’s musical ability and performative ingenuity through their anthologies, essays, novels, film, and music. While each source illustrates the skill of Bessie Smith as a prominent blues singer, the sources in each category also convey different ways in which readers see another iteration of Bessie Smith as blues woman and artist whose recordings in the early 20th century spoke to and protested the social ills of the black community. This bibliography is divided into sections on the common sources that provide a general perspective on blues music, primary sources that are fundamental to research on Bessie Smith and blues/jazz music structures, journal articles that provide a brief look into other scholars’ perspectives on Bessie Smith through poetry, the sonic structure of blues music and Bessie Smith’s vocal style, blues music’s portrayal in African American literature, and finally the element of the sermonic in blues music. The citations in this article, from books, essays, and journal articles, provide an interdisciplinary perspective on blues and jazz and on the eminence with which Bessie Smith wrote, sang, and preached the blues.

General Overviews

Each citation provides a significant understanding of blues music’s impact as performance art and as a social marker in the history of American music in general and African American music in particular. Baraka 1963 and Ramsey 2003 give readers a clear perspective on blues music’s origination and its structure. Not only are there works included that provide an in-depth analysis of blues music and its implications in popular culture, but Albertson 2003 gives a thorough analysis of the life of blues women singers, specifically Bessie Smith. Small 1998 engages music as a mobile work, while both Booth 1991 and Oakley 1976 examine the historiography of blues music from the American South. Barlow 1989 provides interviews and analyses of blues music as a form of protest that help understand Bessie Smith’s position as a blues vocalist singing against social injustices experienced by the black community. Harrison 1988 reads the ways in which blues women singers vocalize the experiences of their lives as black women, conveying through blues music the truth of the black experience. Powers 2017 gives a current perspective of blues music as a “spiritual erotic.” Each source brings an expansive look into reading blues music, in particular, as sites of cultural memory.

  • Albertson, Chris. Bessie. Rev. and expanded ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.

    As an in-depth biography of Bessie Smith apart from her recordings and performances, this book is an expansion of Albertson’s original work on Bessie Smith, which was published in 1971. This 2003 version is fit for 21st-century readers.

  • Baraka, Amiri. Blues People: Negro Music in White America. New York: Harper Collins, 1963.

    Deeply engages what precedes blues music (work songs), while making clear that the form or style of blues singing is illustrated from the social experience of the performer. This work also examines how the black body in performance engages blues music.

  • Barlow, William. “Looking Up at Down”: The Emergence of Blues Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.

    Examines blues tradition through interviews and recordings of the music; Barlow investigates the development of blues music and how this genre served as a form of resistance against white supremacy.

  • Booth, Stanley. Rythm Oil: A Journey through the Music of the American South. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1991.

    Helpful source in examining the trajectory of blues music from the South. Puts in historiographical context the blues music tradition by tracing music from Memphis, Mississippi, and Georgia.

  • Handy, W. C., ed. Blues: An Anthology. New York: Albert and Charles Boni, 1926.

    Organized by the Father of the Blues, W. C. Handy’s anthology gives a meticulous account of known and unknown blues compositions with orchestrated notes, scores, and annotations.

  • Harrison, Daphne Duval. Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1988.

    This book provides a profound look at blues women figures of the 1920s in music. As mentioned in her work, “blues artists” and “blues writers” are sources from which Harrison draws information to examine blues music’s impact in the black community. Examining the role of the blues writer in literature shows how the novel is a medium through which blues music representing the “truth” of the black experience is conveyed.

  • Oakley, Giles. The Devil’s Music: A History of the Blues. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1976.

    Gives personal accounts from notable blues musicians about the history of blues music and its impact as a historical marker of cultural memory.

  • Powers, Ann. Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black & White, Body and Soul in American Music. New York: HarperCollins, 2017.

    This expansive work analyzes the progression of music from work songs to the spirituals and the blues. In “Let It Breathe on Me: Spiritual Erotics,” Powers examines blues music as a “spiritual erotic” that developed and transitioned into popular culture in the early 20th century. From Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey to Clara Ward, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Mahalia Jackson, Powers examines the blurred sacred/secular line of blues and gospel music.

  • Ramsey, Guthrie P., Jr. Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hip-Hop. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

    Through historical, mimetic, and theoretical lenses, this work efficaciously analyzes music as a social text, including discussions of gospel, blues, jazz, and hip-hop. Race Music defines the implications of music’s culture and meanings of performance in the 20th century through an ethnomusicological perspective.

  • Small, Christopher. Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1998.

    This work provides a detailed engagement on the concept of music as a verb. Music as a mobile work is the critical idea Small examines in this text. “What does it mean when this performance (of this work) takes place at this time, in this place, with these participants?” (p. 10). This is a question that is often asked in musicology and performance studies theory, and Small’s musicological analysis travels to the depths of how scholars classify production and performance in particular spaces and historical contexts.

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