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 21

Ma and Will knew they had to hurry to get to the Union Station before the train left for Louisville.  The show's performers always traveled by train in two reserved sleeping cars.  Most of the time they rehearsed for the next show, and they spent their leisure time sleeping and relaxing. 

Ma had not been altogether honest with Bessie when she told her that traveling on the road was a hard life.  In fact, the performers in Ma Rainey’s Rabbit Foot Minstrel Show traveled in style, and Ma Rainey, Will and the rest of the performers usually traveled by train while the show’s crew of workers traveled by trucks.  The workers carried everything needed to set up for the next show. 

When Ma and Will reached the Union Station, which was located in Chattanooga on the corner of Carter and West Ninth Street, they were not far from the juke joints where Bessie got her start. 

During the early 1900s the Union Station served as the hub for travelers in the Southeastern part of the United States.  Colored people with money could ride segregated sleeping cars.  When Ma and Will boarded the two sleeping cars the show had rented, the other performers were already relaxing, eating, drinking and talking about the young girl who out sang Ma Rainey. 

Meanwhile, Bessie had sneaked back into the one-room shack she shared with her sisters and Andrew in Tannery Flats.  She was trying to wake Andrew to tell him she had won the singing contest. 

"Andrew!  Andrew!  Andrew!  Wake up!  Wake up!  I won the singin' contest.  I got the money.  We rich!" Bessie was shouting but could not wake Andrew from his sleep, but she woke Viola. 

Viola walked up behind Bessie, put her hand on Bessie’s shoulder and said, "Girl, where the hell you been?"  Bessie was shocked at the sudden appearance of Viola.  As she turned around to face Viola, she dropped the $75 on the dirt floor.

"Girl, where did you get all this money from?  Bessie Smith, you been out to that show, ain't you?"

Viola bent and picked up the money and began to count it.  She counted the money over and over again, and then she looked at Bessie. 

"This is mo' money than I seen in my whole life... we rich!  We rich!" Viola said with joy as she continued to count the money. 

Now, Andrew and the rest of the family woke up.  Tinnie was standing behind Viola; Lulu was standing beside Tinnie while holding Viola’s crying baby.  The whole family was proud of Bessie for winning the contest, and brings the money home.  They were standing around Bessie when she told the story about how she won the money by singing the blues at the traveling show. 

"I was the best blues singer out there, even better than Ma Rainey.  The people loved me... the people made 'em give me the money."

Bessie continued to explain to Viola that she won the money by singing "Po' Man’s Blues."  Bessie also told Viola that Ma Rainey said that next year she was coming back to Chattanooga and take her on the road.  Viola was still counting the $75. 

Viola stopped counting the money for a moment and looked at Bessie and asked, "Can you always get money like this when you sing the blues?" Viola didn't mention how angry she was at Bessie for leaving the Baptist Church.  Now, Viola acted more like an agent than a big sister.  "Bessie, if I tell 'em you can go, will they take you with 'em?" 

"Yea," Bessie answered, "but they gone down to the Union Station to catch the train, now, ‘cause they gonna play in Louisville next."

"You sure they will take you with 'em to Louisville, Bessie?" Viola asked again. 

Bessie didn't know what would happen if she went to the Union Station and tried to join the show; she only knew what Ma Rainey told her, so she lied to Viola and said, "They wanted me to go with 'em at first... but I told 'em I was too young to go... I told 'em my sister would get mad if I left home."

"Viola, if I go down there and tell 'em you gonna let me go... I bet they'll let me go," Bessie continued to lie.  She knew this was her last chance to join the traveling show, and her only chance to become a great blues singer.

"You sure, girl?"

"Yeah, Viola.  I’m sure," Bessie said with a big grin on her face.  She knew that Viola would let her go because she knew how much Viola loved money. 

"You go down to the train station and see if they let you go.  But Bessie Smith... you come right back here if they won’t let you go... you come back right back here if they is gone.   You hear," Viola said, and then added,  "Andrew, you go with Bessie to help her."

Before Viola could say another word, Andrew had his clothes on, and he and Bessie were running out of the shack headed  to the Union Station.  Viola stood in the doorway still counting the money.

Viola had no idea what would happen to Bessie.   She only knew that Bessie always wanted to join a traveling show like Clarence, and if she could make money like the $75 she just brought home that night, Viola knew the family would have a better way of life.   That was the most money Viola had ever seen, and she hoped that Bessie's singing that devil's music would bring more.  But for now, Viola was still standing in the doorway of their little shack counting the most money she'd seen in her life.



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