By Stephen Smoot
As part of its continuing efforts to provide both entertaining and educational programs for the enjoyment of the community, Pendleton County Library welcomed the actress and singer Lady D. Along with talented guitarist Andrew Caldwell. She performed as Bessie Smith, an early 20th century blues superstar.
Both in real life and in her Franklin performance “Bessie” cut a regal figure. She wore a deep purple ankle-length dress with gold fringe, sparkling earrings, and a gold headpiece. “Bessie” spoke in a period accent with flourish and flair, projecting a deep, powerful, and beautiful voice whether she sang or spoke.
Sometimes sultry, sometimes sad, sometimes funny, and always entertaining, “Bessie” kept the attention of more than 40 attendees.
She was introduced by Rhonda Nash, vice president of the Friends of the Library, on behalf of that group and also the Pendleton County Committee For the Arts.
“Bessie Smith, that’s my name,” she opened by saying, following that with “I grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, singing and dancing on street corners with my brother.” She related the story of her brother, Clarence, introducing her to Ma Rainey, also known as “the Mother of the Blues.”
Rainey’s music captured “all the sorrow and all the trouble our folks have seen” “Bessie” then added, with emphasis, “blues is the truth!”
“Bessie” started her career in a minstrel show, singing alongside dancers, comedians, and even jugglers and fire-eaters. They did “anything it took to entertain you and make you forget your troubles,” and she said, “I performed for everyone, colored and white.”
She then shared a story about one performance in the South. A crowd of both white and black fans tried to come to see her, but were blocked from entering. She was told “Bessie, the Klan is out there. They won’t let anyone come in.”
“Bessie” shared that she went and picked up a large stick and roared at the Klansmen, “I’m the first you’re going to have to take out of here.”
She shared her rise to the top, with a record label from New York finally taking a chance on her. Though not the first black woman to record an album, she sold 800,000 copies and earned $250 per song.
“My daddy was a preacher,” she purred, adding that “when I chose to be good, I was good as gold. When I chose to be bad – I was even better.”
That led into a powerful rendition of “T’ain’t Nobody’s Bizness if I Do.”
“Bessie” described the life of a superstar of the 1920s, living well on $1,200 a week, which she said “is good money, even now!” “Bessie” always dealt with hangers on and often ran up against the Jim Crow established social and legal restrictions of her time. She bought an opulently decorated train car of her own, mainly because she and her crew liked traveling in style, but often could not find lodging in some parts of the South.
Then she described how her life changed drastically as the Great Depression cut off chances to perform and make records. Before then, she said “I had plenty of folks sitting at my table, eating and drinking for free, bragging” about being close to the superstar.
“When you’re down,” she said, “you find out who your friends really are.” “Bessie” then went into a soulful version of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” covered in the 1990s by rock and blues legend Eric Clapton.
“Bessie’s” performance brought many facets. Attendees learned intimately about the burdens of both fame and Jim Crow, as well as the often lonely life of a popular performer. They heard about the ups and downs, the mirth and melancholy, and the pinnacles and the valleys of life – in other words, the grist for the blues musical mill.
Stories were punctuated by full-throated singing delivered with both power and grace.
Her final song brought a soulful and mournful feel with almost gospel overtones, singing “all I want is a little joy in my life, all I found was war and despair . . . I wonder what my end’s going to be.”
The attendees got to ask questions both of “Bessie” and Lady D. “Bessie” ad libbed answers as effortlessly as a comic performer, fielding questions and returning shots and information as needed.
Afterwards, attendees got to speak with Lady D and Caldwell while eating delicious light refreshments.