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 7

The next morning everyone in the Smith house was happy for Bessie.  Before going to work at the icehouse, Lulu left Bessie her breakfast; and, since Bessie had to get ready for choir practice by singing gospel songs, Viola told Bessie and Andrew that they didn’t’ have to go to school that morning. 

All that morning Bessie stood in front of Andrew singing “Nearer My God To Thee,” while he watched with pride and admiration.  Bessie practices until noon.  Noon was when Viola went to her boyfriend’s house to drink gin and fool around.  Right after Viola left the house for her daily routine, Bessie pulled Andrew out of the door heading for the juke joints on Ninth Street.

West Ninth Street was where the most popular joints were located.  The joints were lined up side by side for two blocks on both sides of the street, and with names like Back Drop Club, Flamingo Club, 20 Grand Club, 98 Club and John’s Tea Room — Ninth Street was not only the place to party for Coloreds in Chattanooga but it was so famous that people would come from as far as Atlanta to have a good time on what was then called “Big 9.”

These joints were filthy establishments and upon entering any one, there was always the same thing: some tables and chairs with a bar that had five or six bar stools.  In the joints that had music, the music was made by self-playing pianos or Victrolas.

The odor that came from the joints was foul, a mixture of kerosene that came from the lamps, beer, moonshine, tobacco smoke and human perspiration.  The odor from the joints gave meaning to Bessie’s famous saying, “The funk is flying!”

It was too early for Bessie and Andrew to hustle the workers from the icehouse so they went to the 20 Grand Club to sing and dance.  When Bessie and Andrew walked into the joint there was only one man inside.  He was sitting at the bar.  The barmaid didn’t notice Bessie and Andrew when they entered the joint, but the man sitting at the bar did. His eyes followed them as they crossed the floor leading to the bar where he was sitting.

When Bessie and Andrew reached the bar, before the could say a word, the man quickly turned to them and said, “Hey, I’m Jake-the-Snake-Handler… and I am with Ma Rainey’s Rabbit Foot Minstrel Show.”

“Hey, my name is Bessie Smith and, this is my brother Andrew.  Why is you in Chattanooga now, when the show ain’t ‘til Sunday?” Bessie, with skepticism, asked the man who was in his 40’s, but looked younger.

“I’m always the first to come into a town and help lay out the place where the show is gonna be set up… we gonna be way outside of town this time,” Jake said to Bessie, still not quite convincing her he was who he said he was.

“What you do in the show?  You white, ain’t you?  Ma Rainey’s show is Colored,” Andrew said to the man.
“My name say it all, my dear boy…my name say it all… I’m Jake-the-Snake-Handler and I am not white… I am just a light-skinned Nigger.”

Bessie and Andrew listened closely to the man named Jake as he continued to talk, “I been handling snakes for goin’ on 13 years… 10 of ‘em been with Ma… I been bit by over 50 poison snakes… and I bit half of ‘em back.  I’m the snakeman… and I’m part of Ma Rainey’s Rabbit Foot Minstrel Show.”

After that talk, Bessie was convinced the stranger was with the show.  Bessie was excited about meeting someone from the show, so she pulled Andrew by the arm and both of the kids climbed to the bar stools on each side of Jake.  Now, the kids wanted to know everything about the show.

“Where the show come from?  How many people is in the show?  How do Ma Rainey look?  How y’all get in the show?  How long will y’all be in town?”

“Hold it!  Just hold it one minute.  One question at a time,” Jake said to Bessie.

“How many people in the show?”  Bessie asked Jake.  Jake explained to Bessie that there were 12 acts in Ma Rainey’s minstrel show.  “One of the headlining acts is the singin’ and dancin’ twins,” Jake said.

“The twins is a sister and brother act that can really sing… they can sing gospel, blues and all the best songs… and they can dance with the best of the Colored entertainers. The can dance the Charleston best of all.”

“The twins been singin’ and dancin’ with Ma Rainey for over five years,” Jake explained.

“Then there’s Fat Molly, the 300 pound belly dancer.  She’s one of the show’s best acts… she dances… she sings… this big woman can mover her body like a reptile.  I discovered Molly dancin’ in a juke joint in Memphis… she was workin’ for pennies and now she is a top act for Ma.”

“Oh, yea, there’s Sammie the Clown.  Sammie is the best joke and storyteller in the business… he joined up with Ma two years ago.”  Jake told Bessie that Sammie was a great storyteller, and people have been known to travel for hundreds of miles to listen to his jokes and hear him tell stories.

“One-Armed John, the piano man, is also a favorite of the show.  The folks enjoy seeing how a man with only one arm can outplay most two-armed men… and some three-armed men.”  Jake laughed at his own joke.  “Ya, Ya, Ya, Ya, Ya.”
“That’s not all.  There’s Billy Bates, the famous blues singer… the Freedom Choir… Bumps, the Monkey Man… and a lot more.”

“But the Grand Finale is the singin’ contest where the members of the audience compete with the professional singers from the show… the winner get a $75 grand prize.”

“Wow!” Bessie said, looking at Andrew. “We need that money!”

“Bessie, you know that Viola ain’t gonna let you go to no Ma Rainey’s Minstrel Show. So just forget ‘bout winnin’ that money.  Now, we gotta get back home ‘fore Viola get back and find that we been gone.”  Bessie was so busy asking Jake question about the show; she never heard a word Andrew said.

Knowing that Viola would be home soon, Andrew jumped from the bar stool and ran out of the front door.  He stood outside the joint calling for his sister.  Andrew knew he had to leaves first before he could begin to convince Bessie to leave.

“Come on, Bessie!… we gotta go… come on! Come on now!  We gotta go ‘fore Viola get back!”

“Just wait, Andrew.  I’ll be right there!  You better wait for me!”  Bessie called from inside the joint.

Bessie thanked the man named Jake for his information and promised that she would be at the show Sunday.  The kids left Ninth Street and ran back to Tannery Flats to get ready to go to Tuesday night choir practice.



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