Born in Chattanooga, TN in the 1890‘s (the exact date is a point of some debate), Bessie Smith was hugely popular and influential in the 1920’s. She recorded 160 songs for Columbia Records, with her debut single (“Gulf Coast Blues” paired with “Downhearted Blues”) selling 750,000 copies in 1923. She would work with such future legends as Fletcher Henderson, Coleman Hawkins, and Louis Armstrong, and she defied racial segregation by traveling with her band in their own private railroad car years before Duke Ellington could afford to do so himself. The woman was a star, rightly dubbed “Empress of the Blues.”
But the public’s taste can be fickle, and the depression hurt the public’s willingness to spend money on records, so Bessie was dropped from Columbia, cutting her final sides with them in 1931. She continued to tour, though the itinerary had been reduced from nationwide to dates in the South, where her popularity had barely flagged. In 1933, she was called up to New York City to record four tracks for Okeh. Each song was a classic expression of Bessie’s musical muse: sex. “Do Your Duty” was not a song about military service, folks—it was a song that called on men to make sure their women were satisfied.
“Down In the Dumps,” while not overtly salacious, is still about feeling depressed because your man is gone. The song ends on an almost hopeful note, though:
I’m twenty-five years old, that ain’t no old maid
I got plenty of vim and vitality, I’m sure that I can make the grade
I’m always like a tiger, I’m ready to jump
I need a whole lot of lovin’, cause I’m down in the dumps.
The two other songs from this session were aided by a visit from a young Benny Goodman on clarinet; he happened to be recording next door and decided to sit in. “Gimme a Pigfoot” is a song about high times in Harlem,
and “Take Me For a Buggy Ride” is about a lot more than going for a ride on the town:
What can it be that makes me say? “daddy, take all of me”
You always ready ev’ry time that I call
What I like about you, you never stall.
There is something charming about the barely disguised sexuality in these songs. Bessie was not at all the only one to walk that lyrical line; sex was a popular subject in “race music” back in the twenties and thirties. The songwriter just had to obfuscate it a bit lyrically and let the singer fill in the blanks with her intonation. That way, if a child or a sheltered adult happened to walk past the Victrola and hear Clara Smith (no relation) declare “Ain’t Got Nobody to Grind My Coffee,” well, they probably assumed that grinding coffee was just one of those things that Clara preferred her man do for her, rather than do it herself. And they would be right.
This would turn out to be Bessie Smith’s final recording session. She continued to tour and was working towards a comeback as a swing band singer when she was killed in a car accident in 1937.