Thursday, August 11, 2011

Chattanooga Honors A Musical Icon At The Bessie Smith Cultural Center

In the early years of the 20th century, Chattanooga, Tennessee, was a industrial giant and major railroad center. There was plenty of wealth here and some poverty too, particularly
in the segregated black neighborhood along 9th Street where Bessie Smith was born and spent her childhood. Despite the extreme poverty of her early years (or maybe because of it) Smith would go on to become one of the iconic blues singers of all time.

In 1982 a group of community leaders founded the city’s African American Cultural Center.
Located in an area once dubbed as the city’s black enterprise zone, (the famed 9th Street District) now known as Martin Luther King Boulevard, the museum’s original goal was to present the many contributions African Americans made to the development of Chattanooga.

Four years later, a newly renovated building became the home of the Chattanooga African American Museum and the Bessie Smith Performance Hall. The facility, established to pay homage to the late “Empress of the Blues”, Bessie Smith, has become well known in the Chattanooga community as an educational center and outstanding venue for performances and other events. In 2009, the institution was renamed the Bessie Smith Cultural Center. It’s affectionally called “The Bessie.”

Born in Chattanooga in 1894, Bessie Smith was a popular singer during the 1920s and 30s. Raised in poverty, she ran away as a teenager to join a traveling show as a dancer. In 1912, Smith began performing in the same show as blues vocalist Ma Rainey “Mother of the Blues”. Rainey became Smith’s close friend and mentor. Smith continued to perform at theaters around the country on the black vaudeville circuit, but her career took off once she started recording.

Signed by Columbia Records in 1923, Bessie Smith’s first recording “Down Hearted Blues” was a big success. Her rich, powerful, and clear voice, made her a successful recording artist and she toured extensively for the rest of her life. Smith had a great rapport with her audiences.
As a blues artist, Bessie Smith deliver her songs with great emotion. She knew firsthand about struggle and heartbreak.

During her recording career, Bessie Smith worked with many important jazz performers, such as saxophonist Sidney Bechet and pianists Fletcher Henderson and James P. Johnson. With Johnson, she recorded one of her most famous songs, “Back Water Blues.” Smith also collaborated with the legendary jazz artist Louis Armstrong on several tunes, including “Cold in Hand Blues” and “I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle.”

Tragically, Bessie Smith was killed in an automobile accident in 1937. Since her death, her music has continued to win new fans and collections of her songs have sold well over the years. Smith influnced many later singers like Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin. Joplin purchased a headstone for Smith’s grave in 1972. You can enjoy Bessie Smith performing many of her songs on YouTube.

The museum at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center
effectively traces the history of the black community in Chattanooga in photos, documents, and artifacts. In addition, there is a small art gallery which presents works by contemporary black visual artists. “The Bessie” is a premier interdisciplinary cultural center for cultural, educational, and artistic excellence and fosters research and education of African and African American heritage.Learn more at Also see

James Weaver
GolfWiz Blog
Senior Travel Writer

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