Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964)
Gelatin silver print, 1936
Bessie Smith was the most influential blues singer in history and the first major feminist voice in American music. With her deep, powerful contralto, Smith foregrounded an individual woman’s experience in her songs: she sang alternately with lusty pride and melancholy of sexual desire, economic hardship, loneliness, and transience. She drank and fought as hard as any man, ran her own vaudeville troupe, and once scared off a bunch of Klansmen by herself. During the Jim Crow era, Smith’s songs mediated the experience of the Great Migration out of the South and evoked intense emotional response from black audiences. A protégé of Ma Rainey, Smith sang of the road as a metaphor for life: “I’m a rambling woman . . . with a rambling mind.” Her artistic influence remains vital in artists such as Bonnie Raitt, Erykah Badu, and Lucinda Williams. Janis Joplin put up half the money for Smith’s new gravestone in 1970.