“Ain’t nobody’s business if I do”

March 8, 2009

bessie-smithAs we were leaving the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, Pat and I were discussing whether we would find any video of Bessie Smith on the Internet. A man who had come out before us overheard us and volunteered that there is a clip on YouTube of Bessie Smith singing “St. Louis Blues” in the 1925 film by the same name. Although it seems to have been a critical success, this film is all but lost. The YouTube clip runs a little more than nine minutes, and it gives a sense of the power of Bessie Smith’s performance. Of course, there is a lot of audio available from her recording career.

We were at the George Street Playhouse to see “The Devil’s Music,” a one-act musical show that recounts the life of a woman who was a major star in the 1920s and ’30s but is largely forgotten  today. Miche Braden plays the singer and does justice the part. An interesting thing about Bessie Smith is that she led a life of drink and sex and violence that most of us would not condone in the abstract, but it was that very mode of life that fed the blues that she sang. She paid heavily for her recklessness, paid in ways that broke her heart, but somehow she tore out of her sad life a body of  work that speaks for many souls who had the blues, too, but neither the voice nor the spirit to make their misery heard and make the rest of us think twice about dismissing them.



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