Blues Empress in Black Chattanooga

Blues Empress in Black Chattanooga: Bessie Smith and the Emerging Urban South

MICHELLE R. SCOTT
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 216
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/j.ctt1xck2n
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Blues Empress in Black Chattanooga
    Book Description:

    As one of the first African American vocalists to be recorded, Bessie Smith is a prominent figure in American popular culture and African American history. Michelle R. Scott uses Smith's life as a lens to investigate broad issues in history, including industrialization, Southern rural to urban migration, black community development in the post-emancipation era, and black working-class gender conventions. _x000B__x000B_Arguing that the rise of blues culture and the success of female blues artists like Bessie Smith are connected to the rapid migration and industrialization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Scott focuses her analysis on Chattanooga, Tennessee, the large industrial and transportation center where Smith was born. This study explores how the expansion of the Southern railroads and the development of iron foundries, steel mills, and sawmills created vast employment opportunities in the postbellum era. Chronicling the growth and development of the African American Chattanooga community, Scott examines the Smith family's migration to Chattanooga and the popular music of black Chattanooga during the first decade of the twentieth century, and culminates by delving into Smith's early years on the vaudeville circuit.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09237-4
    Subjects: Sociology, History, Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. PREFACE
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. INTRODUCTION: UNCOVERING THE LIFE OF A BLUES WOMAN
    (pp. 1-10)

    In Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the early 1900s, African Americans were not a downtrodden minority but a vibrant 40 percent or more of the population.¹ Only thirty years removed from the abolition of slavery and four years after the Supreme Court legalized racial segregation, black Chattanoogans struggled with but were not entirely eclipsed by racial discrimination and intolerance. If one traveled along Chattanooga’s downtown streets in the 1900s, one would encounter drug stores, restaurants, grocery shops, and barbershops patronized, managed, and even owned by African Americans. Visitors to the city would see black consumers purchasing household items from the James and...

  6. 1 BEYOND THE CONTRABAND CAMPS: BLACK CHAT TANOOGA FROM THE CIVIL WAR TO 1880
    (pp. 11-34)

    In the late fall of 1863, Chattanooga, Tennessee, was a southern city that had experienced tremendous change in its physical and demographic landscape. The battles of the Civil War had marred the early industrial city, leveling churches, office buildings, and homes, twisting railroad lines, and overturning cobbled streets. The war had also ripped many families in half, particularly when Chattanooga citizens were forced to choose between their pro-Union sentiments and the reality that Tennessee had seceded and become a Confederate state in June 1861. Confederate soldiers lined the streets and controlled the city until the devastating and bloody battles of...

  7. 2 “THE FREEST TOWN ON THE MAP” BLACK MIGRATION TO NEW SOUTH CHATTANOOGA
    (pp. 35-54)

    In the aftermath of Reconstruction in the 1880s, the South attempted to reconfigure itself politically, economically, and socially in the wake of the removal of federal troops from the region. For Chattanooga, specifically, the 1880s saw a boom in its population and the development of industry. The city’s population had doubled since 1870, and Chattanooga became one of Tennessee’s larger cities, its residents numbering nearly thirteen thousand.¹ As early as 1868 the city’s residents had encouraged northerners and southerners to “come to Chattanooga,” and by 1880 the city was well on its way to transforming itself into one of the...

  8. 3 THE EMPRESS’S PLAYGROUND: BESSIE SMITH AND BLACK CHILDHOOD IN THE URBAN SOUTH
    (pp. 55-80)

    In the rural Deep South in the 1880s, many African American families experienced a period of tremendous upheaval. Prompted by racial strife and economic loss, they packed up their meager belongings in well-worn trunks and traveled by wagon, train, and foot to southern urban areas in search of a better life. The Smith family of northern Alabama was among these migrants. Just as thousands of black residents from Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and the Carolinas marked a path to the centers of urban South, William and Laura Smith made their way to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Their six children joined them for the...

  9. 4 LIFE ON “BIG NINTH” STREET: THE EMERGING BLUES CULTURE IN CHATTANOOGA
    (pp. 81-112)

    While the first of this chapter’s epigraphs, written in 1897 by the African American pastor of Chattanooga’s First Congregational church, refers to the streets of all urban landscapes, the second, a poem by the Chattanooga native Ishmael Reed, reveals that the greatest “exhibition hall” of Chattanooga in the early twentieth century was the vibrant Ninth Street. Stretching from the banks of the Tennessee River and the Union Railway lines through downtown to the edge of the famed National Cemetery, Ninth Street was a microcosm of the city’s commercial and social offerings as well its diverse population.

    On West Ninth Street,...

  10. 5 AN EMPRESS IN VAUDEVILLE: BESSIE SMITH ON THE THEATER CIRCUIT
    (pp. 113-134)

    The African American entertainment industry of the early twentieth century flourished with minstrel shows, vaudeville performances, and musical comedies. Inspired by performances in their small-town theaters, festivals, and carnivals, hundreds of young African Americans dreamed of joining the chorus of the Mahara Minstrels or the cast of a show like Bert Williams and George Walker’sPolicy Players.¹ Many black youth satisfied their desire to perform by joining their church choir or the local brass band ensemble, and they delighted audiences of relatives, friends, and neighbors. Yet other, perhaps more ambitious aspiring entertainers responded to handbills and advertisements in black newspapers...

  11. EPILOGUE: A BLUES WOMAN’S LEGACY
    (pp. 135-138)

    Bessie Smith lived much of her career and the remainder of her life in the manner that she sang about in “Young Woman’s Blues.” She was a relatively young woman of thirty-one when she earned her first Columbia recording contract, and the “runnin’ ’round” that she had done as a popular vaudeville artist only increased. Although by the mid 1920s Bessie was based in Philadelphia, her recordings greatly enhanced her popularity, and she spent the pinnacle of her career traveling the nation in her own stylized revue. The stage was her home, and Bessie could have been criticized for being...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 139-172)
  13. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 173-192)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 193-198)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 199-201)