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 14

It wasn’t hard for Bessie to find the front entrance to the show.  People were still paying their money and coming in to see Ma Rainey's Rabbit Foot Minstrel Show.   Upon entering the front gate there was a woman sitting behind a small table in the tent taking up all the dollars from each contestant.  A number was given to each contestant and the woman behind the table said, "Take to the stage and do your act when your number is called!"

When Bessie left the tent after paying her dollar, a small-framed, light complexioned, gray-haired Colored man who looked to be in his 60s greeted Bessie by saying,  "So you gonna get in the singin' contest, too."

"Yea," Bessie said to the stranger who wore a shirt engraved with the name L. Fisher.

"You think you gonna win that $75, don’t you?" the old man asked with a smirk on his face.

"Yea!" Bessie answered back. "I'm gonna win... I know I'm gonna win that money!"

"Well, you ain't gonna win... nobody ever gonna win the money...   you ain't either," the old man replied to Bessie with a laugh.

"Nobody can outsing the Mother of the Blues."   The old man gave Bessie the number 34 and instructed her where to go to get ready for her singing act.

The old man simply told Bessie to go back to the Big Tent where she had performed with Jake earlier.  When she reached the Big Tent, people were standing outside trying to see in.  Bessie had to push her way through the crowd to enter the tent.  Once inside, she saw that the tent had been put back together after the snake act.  There were no empty seats to be found.  People were standing in every empty space in the Big Tent to see the singing contest.  The tent was so packed that it was uncomfortable inside. 

Bessie went immediately behind the stage where she saw all the others who had paid their money to enter the singing contest.   Like Bessie, most of the contestants were from Chattanooga and North Georgia.  They, like Bessie, had high hopes of winning the $75, and dreams of leaving their miserable lives behind for a job on the traveling show.   But unlike Bessie, most of the hopefuls had no talent and would ultimately serve as entertainment for the restless audience that came to boo the un-talented and throw rotten vegetables, fruit and eggs at whomever showed the slightest flaw in their act.  

Bessie was surprised to see that Jake and the MC who introduced Jake’s snake act were giving instructions to the contestants.  They were giving instructions on how to climb up the ladder attached to the back of the stage.  The stage could only be reached from the rear by  climbing up a five-foot high ladder at the back of the stage.  Jake was showing  one lady how to climb the ladder when Bessie walked over and touched him gently on the shoulder.

"Jake, I got my number for the singin’ contest," Bessie said.

Jake playfully jumped from Bessie’s unexpected touch on his shoulder.  He turned and said, "Oh...  Bessie, it’s you... I hoped I’d never see you again... you messed me up, girl.  Don’t you know I had a hard time gettin’ them snakes back in them cages?” Jake said with a frown that turned into a smile.

"But one good thing did come from them snakes gettin' loose:  we found out how to get rid of them rowdy Niggers from Chattanooga.  Just turn the snakes on 'em," Jake said and then broke out into a big laugh.

"I’m sorry, Jake," Bessie said,  "I didn’t mean to drop the snake... it was too big... I just couldn’t hold it!"

"Well Bessie, I forgive you but you gotta hurry and give me the name of the song you gonna sing...   we need to give it to the band, so they can get ready."

"'Weary Blues'...  I’m gonna sing 'Weary Blues.'" 

Jake looked at Bessie with a smile, turned, and walked toward the MC as he wrote something on a piece of paper.  When Jake reached the MC, he whispered something in the MC's ear, and then pointed to Bessie and gave the MC the paper he had written on.  Jake walked back to where Bessie was standing and asked her, "What’s yo' number?"
"34."  She showed Jake the ticket the old man had given her.

Jake yelled back over to the MC, "34... it's 34!"

"Good," he said, looking back at Bessie.  "By the time you get on stage them Niggers should be outta things to throw."

"Jake, who gonna throw things... they ain't gonna throw things at me... is they?" 

" Bessie, the singin' contest is only to give the crowd a little fun 'fore  Ma  get on stage to do her act...  since they ain't gonna win noway, we just have a little fun with 'em... they never gonna win the money," Jake explained. "The crowd like to blow off a  little steam on them fools, who really can't sing noway."

"But I can sing the blues good," Bessie asked.  "Will they throw things at me too?"

"Okay Bessie, you can sing the blues good... but now we gotta get ready for the first act so the show can get started," was his answer.

It was Jake’s responsibility to get all the contestants on stage, but it was their responsibility to get off once the rotten vegetables, fruit and eggs started flying.

"Number one! Who got number one? It's time to go!" Jake yelled.

The first contestant was Bill Bailey, a short, stumpy looking man who was wearing worn-out boots and patched up overalls.  Bill was jet black with a shiny baldhead.  His head bobbed up and down when he walked.  He was a part-time janitor who worked at one of the joints on Ninth Street.  He was not only a part-time worker at the joint, but full-time clown and full-time drunk.  Most of all, Bill Bailey was a joke as a singer.

Jake helped Bill Bailey up the ladder at the back of the stage.  When Bill got on the stage and walked toward the audience, shouts and boos could be heard coming from the people in the audience even before Bill could open his mouth.  Everybody in the audience knew Bill Bailey was a clown, but he thought he could really sing. The crowd thought otherwise. 

"Get that drunk off stage!" someone yelled.

"Get down, Bill Bailey, you can’t sang!" someone else yelled.

Trembling before the crowd of hostile spectators, Bill Bailey opened his mouth to sing the first note of "Down Home Blues" when a rotten tomato hit him right between the eyes.  Then came another tomato which he was able to duck from. Then another. Bill spent the first few minutes of his act ducking flying objects while trying to sing. 

Finally, several members from the audience got up from their seats and walked to the front of the stage.  With rotten tomatoes and eggs in hand, the spectators started an onslaught of throwing rotten eggs and tomatoes at Bill.  They were all throwing at the same time.  So many rotten tomatoes and eggs were hitting Bill that he was just overwhelmed, and jumped off the stage.  He ran out of the tent with people from the audience running behind him still throwing eggs and tomatoes.

Next, the MC came back on stage and said, "Let's give a big hand for Bill Bailey!" and the audience roared with laughter.

The next contestant to take the stage was Lucy Lane, a big fat woman who could really sing gospel.  But she was so fat that the sight of her made most people laugh. 

After being helped on the stage by Jake after almost falling down on him, Lucy finally made it the stage and wobbled her way to the center.  She had a basket in her hand. 

Fat Lucy began by singing "Onward, Christian Soldiers" and for the first few minutes there was no reaction from the audience.  But before she could finish, a man who was sitting in the front row yelled, "Fat Bitch, shut up!"

Then he threw a rotten egg that hit Lucy in the face, but she continued singing.  Then came another egg from the same man.  Again, the egg found its target. Suddenly, Lucy stopped singing and reached in her basket and pulled out a bright red tomato.  She reared back like a pitcher on a mound and threw the tomato at the man in the front row. 

Her tomato found its target, hitting him right in the face.  He returned the favor with a tomato of his own, hitting Lucy on the neck.  This altercation between Lucy and the man on the front row continued for several minutes until Lucy threw her 300 pounds off the stage onto the front row where the man was sitting crushing him and the chair. 

Then, all hell broke loose.   Lucy and the man were in a fight for their lives. Chairs were flying. Screams could be heard from the poor man while Lucy had him under her 300 or so pounds.  She was hammering him in the face with her big fists.

It took 10 men from the audience to pull Lucy off the man who by now was unconscious and had to be taken to the hospital.  After the fight, Lucy realized the man had torn off her clothes and she was half naked.  Feeling shameful, she got up and ran.  To her surprise her panties were torn too.   As she ran out the Big Tent her panties fell to the ground.  She tripped and fell, and the crowd just roared as she crawled out the tent with her bare ass showing.

One man ran from his seat to where Lucy had lost her panties. He picked up the panties from the ground and held Lucy's torn underwear in his outstretched arms and yelled, "These sho’ is some big draws," the man said aIt took only a few minutes to get the crowd back under control.  This kind of frolicking went on with all the contestants.  One man from the audience even attacked a contestant when someone said that the contestant was cheating with the man's wife.

With each contestant who took the stage there was a violent confrontation with the audience.  However, Fat Lucy’s fight was the worse.   This part of the show was for the audience’s entertainment and luckily that night no one was seriously injured.




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