Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23




















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

By Clifford Eberhardt

Chapter 8

When Bessie and Andrew got back home, Viola was still at her boyfriend’s house. Immediately, the two kids started getting ready for choir practice.  Bessie and Andrew knew that if they were dressed and ready to go to church, Viola would never know that they had been on Ninth Street again.  When Viola arrived and saw them ready, she couldn’t hold her excitement back about going to hear Bessie sing.  Andrew could not sit still for a minute; he was so excited about going to hear his big sister sing with the junior choir he was besides himself.

Bessie could see that Viola was putting on a new dress, one she hadn’t seen before.

“She’s wearin’ that new dress ‘cause she like that Rev. Jones.  She’s makin’ me join that junior choir ‘cause she like that preacher.  Viola don’t care ‘bout hearin’ me sing… she only want that preacherman,” Bessie said in a soft voice to herself, as she and Andrew waited for Viola to get dressed.  Bessie had become very bitter at Viola for forcing her to join the church, and for talking against her in front of the preacher.

While Viola was like a mother to Bessie, she was really a child herself.  At the age of 18, Viola was a very attractive, slim, young with curves and oversized breasts. She had her baby when she was 16 years old, and ever since then every man in Tannery Flats at one time or another wanted to get her in bed.

Viola wore her hair in plaits.  Plaited hair originated during slavery, and was an easy method to braid thick course hair.

Most poor Colored women and girls plaited their hair. Even with plaited hair, Viola was very attractive with her smooth, dark complexion, big bright eyes and with even, pearly white teeth.  Bessie looked just like her.  Viola never worked since she had a baby two years before.  She was able to get public relief — $10 a month for her and the baby.

As soon as Viola was dressed she led the two kids out of the shack for the walk to the church. When they reached the church the junior choir was already practicing.  The choir was being led by the choir director, who was a robust woman wearing a red robe.  When Bessie, Viola, and Andrew entered, the church the director turned around to greet them as if she was expecting Bessie.

“Children give me your attention.  We have a new member and her name is Bessie Smith.  Bessie will be singin’ with us tonight and the Rev. Jones said she has the best voice in Chattanooga,” the choir director said.  “And some of you might agree.

“Now y’all welcome Bessie to the choir.”  Bessie smiled at the big woman and took her place on the front row of the choir while Viola and Andrew sat in front pew.

“Attention! Attention… choir, we will now sing ‘Nearer My God to Thee…’ if anyone don’t know the words, just hum along,” the director said, looking at Bessie as if to suggest that Bessie did not know the word. But Bessie did know the words to song since she had been singing it all morning. She also knew the words to most of the gospel songs the junior choir sang because although she always left church before the preaching ended, she never missed hearing the choirs sing.

When the junior choir started to sing, Bessie’s low contralto voice could barely be heard.  But, before the choir was halfway through the first song, Bessie’s voice began to rise and could be heard over all members of the junior choir.  And before the song was finished, the other choir members had stopped singing, and the entire church was listening intently to the voice of Bessie Smith.

“Nearer My God to Thee…”

By now her strong contralto voice could be heard outside the church, and people from the outside who were listening stepped inside to see who owned that voice.  And when Bessie finished, nobody in the church kept their emotions in tact.  Some clapped softly, some cried and Viola whispered “Amen,” with a tear trickling down in the corner of her eye.

The Rev. Jones and the choir director were so impressed with the way Bessie sang, they made Bessie the lead singer in the junior choir her first night at practice.  They also told Bessie that she was welcome to join the senior choir, if she chose to.  Viola and Andrew were so proud of Bessie that for the entire week, all they talked about was how Bessie blew the roof off the church with her voice, and how the Rev. Jones with the choir director had made Bessie the lead singer.

Viola spent the remainder of the week making Bessie a pretty white dress, while Bessie spent most of her time singing gospel songs, but wishing she were singing the blues.  After Bessie’s baptism, she would make her singing debut in the pretty white dress. This was what Viola wanted most of all, but it was not what Bessie wanted.

Everyone in the family knew that after Bessie’s baptism Sunday, her hopes of singing the blues with her great voice would be over.  Then, Bessie would be singing for the Lord and not the devil.  This is what everyone in the Smith wanted for Bessie — everyone—except for Bessie.



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