VERNACULAR MUSICS Bessie. By Chris Albertson. Rev. and expanded ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. [xix, 314 p. ISBN 0-300-09902-9. $29.95.] Illustrations, bibliography, discoeraphy, index.
Readers familiar with Chris Albertson's Bessie, which had been out of print for several years, will be delighted to learn that this landmark biography is now available in a revised and expanded edition from Yale University Press. Bessie examines the life and music of Bessie Smith, the most famous blues singer of the 1920s, and arguably the most successful and influential African American artist of the decade as well. Her influence, of course, extends well beyond the 1920s, for Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson, and Janis Joplin all expressed a profound indebtedness to Smith's artistry. Joplin, for example, told Albertson, "No one ever hit me so hard. . . . Bessie made me want to sing" (p. 278).
When published by Stein and Day in 1972, Bessie was hailed by Whitney Balliett as "the first estimable full-length biography not only of Bessie Smith but of any black musician" (Whitney Balliett, "Bessie Smith Plain," New Yorker 49, no. 1 [24 February 1973]: 128). In its expanded and revised form, Bessie continues to be the definitive biography of Bessie Smith, for Albertson has devoted much of his life to understanding Smith and her cultural and social context, constructing his narrative by means of exhaustive original research, extensive interviews, and careful scrutiny of the artist's entire recorded catalog. Albertson explains that "the publication of a biography has a way of generating more information, for it inspires people to come forward" (p. xii). After the publication of Bessie in 1972, the author was introduced to a number of people who had known Bessie during her childhood years-a period for which there is still very scant information (p. xii). Readers should also know that Albertson collaborated in the early 1970s with Columbia Records to reissue, for the first time, Smith's complete recorded output of 159 sides, and was awarded a Grammy in 1970 for Best Album Notes for the first two-disc set in the series (Bessie Smith: The World's Greatest Blues Singer (Columbia CV 1040, 1041, [LP]). In the 1990s, he again worked with Columbia, writing the liner notes for a ten compact disc set of Smith's complete recordings. The fifth and last volume of the complete recordings provides some wonderful insight into the research that Albertson did for the first edition of Bessie, for it contains over an hour's worth of interview excerpts with Ruby Walker, Bessie's niece, confidant, and touring companion. Walker was possibly Albertson's single most important source of information, and her interviews with the author are noteworthy for their candor, humor, and outrageousness. In fact, this volume is the only one in the series to carry a "parental advisory" warning of "explicit lyrics" (Bessie Smith: The Complete Recordings, vol. 5, Columbia/ Legacy C2K 57546 , CD). This warning label was probably attached to alert buyers to the very candid and sexually explicit descriptions that Walker gives when describing, for example, a "buffet flat," a type of private club that offered drinking and gambling, as well as erotic shows; Albertson's description of the buffet flat is clearly drawn from this recorded interview (pp. 140-142).
Even without Bessie Smith's remarkable recorded legacy, her life story is a fascinating one, and Albertson provides ample evidence that her "persona commanded as much attention as her music" (p. vii). Smith was born into abject poverty in Chattanooga, Tennessee, probably in 1894. Both of her parents had died by the time she was about nine, leaving the oldest of her six siblings to raise Bessie and the others. Bessie performed on street corners with her brother Andrew, who played guitar, and later honed her craft on the vaudeville stage. Although Smith had been performing professionally for over a decade, her first documented recording was for Columbia Records in February 1923. …