Life Story: Bessie Smith (1894 or 1895–1937)

The Empress of the Blues

The story of a blues singer who was born into poverty and became one of the highest paid Black performers in America.

Portrait of Bessie Smith holding feathers

Carl Van Vechten, Portrait of Bessie Smith holding feathers, Feb 3, 1936. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, Van Vechten Collection, Washington, D.C.

Sheet Music Cover of “Oh Daddy Blues”

Clarence Williams Music Publishing, Sheet Music Cover of “Oh Daddy Blues”, 1923. The Sam DeVincent Collection of Illustrated American Sheet Music, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Suggested Activities

  • Use Spotify, YouTube, or another online service to listen to Bessie Smith’s music. Ask students to analyze the lyrics and consider how they relate to Bessie’s life experiences.
  • Consider Bessie’s life—and death—within the broader context of race relations in the 1920s. Combine this life story with the Great Migration photographs, the WKKK document, and the life story of Zora Neale Hurston to go deeper.
  • Compare Bessie Smith’s life with that of Zora Neale Hurston. Both women were born in the South and traveled extensively. They even met once! How were their lives similar and different, and how do they each exemplify life in the Jazz Age?
  • Many of Bessie’s songs dealt with independence, painful romantic and sexual relationships, and the frustrations of male-dominated society. Connect her life story and music to photographs of young women in the 1920s who were experiencing many of these same feelings.



Source Notes