The great Bessie Smith














Out of Chattanooga: “The Life and Times of Bessie Smith”

By Clifford Eberhardt

Chapter 1


“How come I gotta always get the water?” shouted Bessie as she got the bucket and headed for the door.
“Cause you still a sinner girl.  You should be like Andrew and join the church and use that good singin’ voice you got and sing in the choir,” Viola shouted back.

“Shhhhh, now,” Viola hissed, putting her finger over her mouth to keep Bessie from talking too loud.  She realized that Lulu and Tinnie were still sleeping from a hard day’s work at the icehouse.

As Bessie went outside for her walk to the river to fetch the water, she felt she was being punished for something she did not do.  Unlike her younger brother Andrew, Bessie didn’t like church.  She’d rather sleep late on Sunday like Lulu and Tinnie.  But, sleeping late on Sunday meant working all week at the icehouse and this was a choice Bessie didn’t particularly like.  Bessie wanted to be famous one day, but like her two older sisters and most of the other Colored children in Chattanooga, she knew that when she turned 13 years old she would spend the rest of her life working at the Chattanooga Icehouse.

The very thought of working at the icehouse was enough to keep Bessie going to church each Sunday although she didn’t like to.  She had seen how working at the icehouse limited how far a Colored person could go in Chattanooga, and Bessie wanted more out of life than what Chattanooga offered.

Bessie and Andrew scrambled to find their way in the dim light of the kerosene lamps that lit the small shack.  Quickly, the two kids took their turn bathing in a large foot tub used for washing clothes too.  After their baths, Bessie and Andrew were dressed and ready for church.  Andrew wore a clean white shirt, black trousers and a pair of high-laced boots. 

Bessie wore the old gray dress she had been wearing all week, and her boots were run over.
“Don’t y’all look nice,” Viola said as she gave Bessie and Andrew their instructions before sending them to the Baptist Church.  Viola also reminded Bessie that this was the week she had promised to join the church, and talk to the Reverend Jesse Jones about singing in the junior choir.

“Bessie you know you got the best lungs in Tannery Flats.  You need to use ‘em in the name of the Lord.  If Andrew can be on the Junior Usher Board, you sho’ can be in the junior choir.”

Bessie didn’t like to sing the traditional field moaning gospel songs.  She liked the blues.  She admired singers like W.C. Handy, Jelly Roll Morton and Hunddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter.  The blues was the most listened to music by Coloreds, second only to gospels. The down-home music and the downbeat lyrics of the blues reflected the culture of the people and told stories of hope, love, life, and aspirations for the future.

Even at 12, Bessie Smith knew the songs of all the great blues singers.  She could out-sing most and imitate the rest. But Viola wanted Bessie to sing gospel songs at the Baptist Church.

“Andrew!  You tell me if Bessie be singin’ that there devil’s music.  You tell me if that Bessie be goin’ down on that Ninth Street, too… here, take this nickel here and put it in church for our family,” Viola said, putting the nickel into Andrew’s waiting hand.

Though Viola acted very righteous, her main reason for sending Bessie and Andrew to church each Sunday was so she could get away from the house while Lulu and Tinnie were sleeping.  She would take her baby and go to her old man’s house to drink gin and fool around.

Bessie and Andrew didn’t have far to walk to the Baptist Church.  And along the way, Bessie would tease Andrew about how she would be a great blues singer one day and leave Tannery Flats.  Bessie had big dreams, but dreams were all she had.

“I’m gonna leave Chattanooga one day.  I’m gonna sing the blues ‘bout Tannery Flats and make a lot of money.  And I’m gonna buy a big house up North somewhere.” Bessie would say while Andrew would teasingly threaten to tell Viola how she was talking about singing the devil’s music.

When Bessie and Andrew finally reached the church, the preachers and some choir members were standing outside dressed in their robes.  Andrew ran inside and went to his spot up front to serve as usher.  Bessie sat on the back pew as if she was trying to hide. When they got inside, the church was partly filled with Colored people from the different communities in Chattanooga who were attending Sunday school.

The church was a small, white wooden structure with two windows on each side and one small window in the back.  On the outside of the church flakes of white paint peeled off in sections.  Inside the church were 14 pews that took up nearly all the space in the church. The pews were in two rows of seven separated by a narrow aisles running down the center of the church. 

Two narrow aisles on each side of the pews separated the pews from the church’s sidewalls.  In front of the pews was an elevated platform that served as a podium.  To the right of the podium was a door that leads to the small backroom with the window in the back.  To the left of the podium were rows of straight-back chairs that were for the junior and senior choirs.

As the people drifted into the church, Bessie slumped down in the back pew and wished she were down on Ninth Street singing the blues.


Home Page