Preface

Prologue

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 20

As the crowd left Ma Rainey’s Rabbit Foot Minstrel Show, the crew of workers took down the tents, and as the performers packed their costumes to travel to their next performance, everybody was talking about Bessie Smith. 
Ma and Will were in their tent counting their ten percent of the total money taken from the show.  The show took in $1,500, and that earned Ma and Will $150.  With $150 at one time, most Coloreds back then would be considered ‘Nigger Rich.’  But Ma had made up to $500 in one night, so that night's take wasn't such a big deal.  Still, the rest of the performers had to be paid before Lonnie could make a profit off the money left.

"Ma, y'all tent is the only tent left to take down.  We gotta get on the road 'fore long," one of the show's workers called from outside Ma’s tent.

"Come on Will, put the money up.   You looked at it long enough," Ma said to Will, agitating and rushing him to get their things loaded on the wagon. 

"Ma, I ain’t got but two hands and they tired," Will mumbled in a low voice so Ma could not hear him.  Will picked up one of the three footlockers that he and Ma had packed.   His knees were buckling, his back bent and legs wobbled as he carried the heavy footlocker to the waiting horse drawn wagon.  Two of the show's workers followed Will, and brought the other two footlockers out of the tent to finish loading the wagon.  Will didn't see Bessie sitting on the ground in front of the tent with the $75 scattered around her during his struggle with the footlocker.  Finally, Ma came out carrying several bags, some clothes and a jug of moonshine whiskey in her arms.  Ma immediately saw Bessie when she stepped outside the tent. 
         

"Gal, what you doin’ out here sittin’ in the dirt?  Why you got that money all over the ground?"  Ma was surprised and shocked to see Bessie.  "I thought you went home long ago, gal.  Why you still here?"

"I ain’t got nowhere to go... ain’t got no home to go to," Bessie said to Ma, still sitting on the ground.
 

"Go back where you came from," Ma replied.

"I can’t go back."

"Why?"

"I sneaked out of the church to come to the show...  now, my sister Viola and the preacher is mad at me for not getting baptized...  they won't let me come back," Bessie said, her voice trembling with fear and anticipation. 

"Ma, the only thing I ever wanted in the whole wide world is to sing the blues... I even work for free if you let me go with y'all."  Bessie picked the $75 off the ground and offered it to Ma as if to bribe Ma into taking her on the road.

"Girl, you don't throw money away like that.  You won that money.  Give it to me and let me put it in a safe place 'fore you lose it," Ma said, and took the money and put it between her breasts.  
Ma called to Will to load the things she was carrying onto the wagon.   Ma then grabbed Bessie by the hand and took her back into the tent for a mother-to-daughter talk.

"Bessie, what do you think you doin'?  You don’t know what a travelin’ show is like: we travel 50 weeks a year...  sometimes we run out of food...  sometimes we get run out of town, and sometimes there is fights... sometimes we get stranded in these little towns.  Travelin’ on a road show ain't what you think," Ma said.  "It’s a real hard life!"
Bessie was confused. "Why did you join a travelin’ show?" she asked.

"Well, that’s a long story," Ma said.  "When I was a young gal, I had nowhere to live.  I had nowhere to go and my family couldn’t feed me.  I had to join a travelin’ show."

"I ain’t got nowhere to go either," Bessie said to Ma.  Then, tears dropped from Bessie’s eyes and trickled down her face.

"Don’t cry, child," Ma said with the compassion of a mother.  "Honey, you got the $75 you won... that’s mo' money than you'll ever see in yo' life."

"I don’t want the money!  I wanna go on the travelin’ show with y'all."

"Bessie, you can’t go.  You too young," Ma then asked Bessie, "How old is you anyway?"

"Twelve," Bessie said, "but I be 13 next year."

"You just too young... Bessie, honey... you just too young."

Ma then asked, "Have you ever screwed a man?" Bessie was completely unaware of what Ma was asking her.  Bessie looked at Ma confused and did not answer.

"Have you ever had sex with a man?" Ma answered for Bessie by saying, "Child, you is a virgin... ain’t you?"
Ma was touched at Bessie’s innocence and gave her a big hug, whispering softly in her ear, "Bessie you too young to join a travelin’ show... you just too young." 

Ma knew that if she took Bessie across the state line she could go to jail.  But more importantly, Ma knew that if a young girl joined Ma Rainey’s Rabbit Foot Minstrel Show, she would lose her innocence overnight.  Ma demanded that Bessie go back home.  "Bessie, gal, you goin' back home... and we'll take you."   Ma grabbed Bessie firmly by the hand and they walked out just as two workers from the show's crew started to dismantle Ma's tent.  Bessie and Ma walked to the wagon where Will and a driver were waiting.  They climbed on the back of the wagon while Will sat up front with the driver.  Once everybody was seated, the driver jerked the reins and the wagon began to move.

"Bessie where do you live?" then, Ma told the driver "We takin' Bessie home!" 

On the ride back to Chattanooga no one said a word.  The silence was intentional on Ma’s part because Ma didn’t want to start a conversation that she knew would end with Bessie begging to be taken on the traveling show.  But when they reached the dirt road leading to Tannery Flats, Ma yelled out, "What the fuck is that smell?"

Bessie was amused as the others choked and gagged from the stench of Scholze Tannery.  Bessie was used to the smell.  It did not bother her, but Ma was complaining about the awful smell coming from the decaying flesh stripped from cowhides.  This created a great health hazard when the hides were tanned into leather, and the tannery let the flesh from the hides rot in the sun.  The smell from the rotten flesh and the tannery production was horrific.   Ma, Will and the driver held their hands to their noses to protect themselves from the smell. 

As the driver awkwardly drove the wagon through the narrow roads of Tannery Flats, he held one hand over his nose and the other hand on the reins that guided the horse.  Bessie spoke softly to Ma, saying, "Over there... I live over there."  Bessie pointed to the most run-down shack Ma had ever seen. 

"Oh, my child...  you don’t live in that place, do you?" Ma asked with pity. 

"Yeah," Bessie answered. "Me, Andrew, Lulu, Tinnie, Viola and her baby; we all live in that lil shack."
Bessie tried one last time to convince Ma to let her join the traveling show.

"Ma, can I please go with y'all, please."

"No Bessie, I told you, you just too young!" 

Ma climbed off the wagon and grabbed Bessie by the hand to help her off.   Bessie resisted at first, then gave in. 

"Come on, Bessie... you gotta go back home and we gotta get to the train station for our trip to Louisville," Ma said to Bessie.  "But honey, I promise — if you go home and take the money you won and help yo' family... next year when we come back to Chattanooga you’ll be 13, I’ll take you on the road then."  Ma took the $75 from between her breasts and put it in Bessie's hand. Ma finally convinced Bessie to get off the wagon. 

"You gonna take me with you next year, for real?"  Bessie asked Ma, thinking she would never see Ma again.  And knowing that next year she’d be working at the icehouse. 

"I promise," Ma said.

Bessie stepped down from the back of the wagon.  She gave Ma a big hug and started to cry as she walked back to the little shack in Tannery Flats.  Bessie slowly walked, looking back and cried, for she knew what fate awaited her.  Ma got back onto the back of the wagon and told the driver, "Let’s go... we gotta get to the train station ‘fore we get left."

 

 

 

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