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The Blues: Bessie Smith and the role of women in the Blues. From the beginning, the Blues was a genre associated with African American working class culture, and within that culture social relations between men and women took a different turn than in the majority white American society…
Bessie Smith was born to a poor African American family in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and was brought up by her older sister because her parents both died very young. This hard start in life, moving from house to house without a stable home environment, is the classic stuff of the Blues, and she got involved in singing with other family members initially as a way to earn money to feed herself and her siblings. Many details about Bessie’s early life are not known, and this is mainly because the lives of black people were often not considered remarkable enough to be documented accurately. Evidence of her school career and early singing activities is, for example sketchy. It is likely that she experienced singing in the Church, since her father was a part time preacher as well as a day labourer, and in the street, since that is where she would have spent a lot of time as a child. It appears that Bessie started her performing career with her brother in the streets near her home, and then gradually progressing to various roles in Vaudeville and travelling “tent shows” which appeared frequently in Chattanooga due to the town’s strong connections with railway companies. (Scott, 2008, p. 92) Much of this early work was in supporting roles, such as chorus singing. ...
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