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 12

The trip on the back of the ice truck was rough for Bessie.  The driver drove like his only cargo was ice and every time the truck turned, the ice would shift and Bessie would shift with it.  So, Bessie and the ice were sliding from one side of the truck to the other with every turn.

After a 20-minute ride, the ice truck reached a large open field on a farm.  From the cars, trucks, horse drawn wagons and people, both white and Colored, Bessie knew that she was at Ma Rainey’s Rabbit Foot Minstrel Show.

The ice truck driver drove right through the show’s entrance gate to the feeding area. As the truck pulled to a stop, Bessie could smell a familiar smell: barbecued pork cooking on an outdoor fire.  Bessie loved barbecue, a dish that Chattanooga was famous for.  When she smelled the aroma of barbecue, it reminded her that nobody could cook barbecue like Viola.

The cooks who traveled with the show had barbecue several whole hogs like you cook shish kabobs on open fires. 

The cooks were fixing plates of barbecued pork, fried potatoes and boiled corn for the show’s performers.  They were preparing the rest of the food to be sold to the hundreds of people paying 25 cents at the gate to see one of the best traveling minstrel shows of the day.

Before the driver opened his door to get out, Bessie jumped from the back of the truck. She hit the ground running.  She ran away from the feeding area and ducked into one of the tents that were setup for the different acts that made up Ma Rainey’s minstrel show.

No one was in the tent when Bessie ran inside, but it looked like it had been prepared for a performance.  There were over 100 chairs inside.  There were two sections of chairs with five rows of 10 chairs each lined up one behind the other.  Each section had about 50 chairs and was separated by a narrow aisle only big enough for one person to walk down at the time.  In front of the rows of chairs was a stage hardly big enough to hold one small band.  On the stage Bessie saw a set of drums.

Bessie felt at home in the tent, for she had always wanted to join a traveling road show like her brother Clarence did a few years earlier.  For now, Bessie could think of nothing but relaxing.  Tired and shaken from the long rid in the back of the ice truck, she fell into the first chair she came to.

The more Bessie rested and caught her breath, the more she got excited about why she came to the show in the first place.  She wanted to enter the singing contest and win that $75 that her friend Jack-the-Snake-Handler had told her about the other day in the 20 Grand Club.  Yet, what was most important to Bessie was that she wanted to join the show.  But first, she had to find Jake to get more information about the singing contest.

While Bessie was thinking what to do next an old man walked into the tent.  As he entered the tent, the old man walked past Bessie towards the stage like she wasn’t’ there.

“Hey mister!”  Bessie yelled to the old man who walked slightly bent over as if years of hard work had taken a toll on him.

The old man, not turning around nor breaking the stride of his bent-over walk, answered Bessie, “Yeah, what you want?”

“Do you know where to find Jake-the-Snake-handler?”

“You lookin’ for Jake?” the old man replied.

“Yasur… you know where he is?”  Bessie asked in a voice that could barely be heard.

“Right now, you can find ol’ Jake in the Big Tent getting’ ready for his act.  It’s the first tent you’ll see when you go outta this tent.”

She jumped to her feet.  Bessie hoped that Jake would remember her.  Then she ran out of the tent in the direction the old man had told her to go.





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