A Moment with the Empress and the Lady

When I taught African American literature, blues artists Bessie Smith’s and Billie Holiday’s songs were key in deepening students’ understanding of the continuities of Black experience and literature and arts in America. I haven’t taught the literature since we moved to Northern Alabama, so their music is collecting dust. In fact, I think the collections are still in boxes.

A couple of days ago, I ran across a Billie Holiday postcard that I’ve had for quite some time–a familiar photo of Lady Day, with the signature gardenia in her hair.

Billie Holiday, c. 1936, Photograph by Robin Carson, from the Collection of Ole Brask

The sender’s note referenced listening to Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith days before sending the postcard. Interestingly, the day after rediscovering the postcard–yesterday, in fact–I received a Bessie Smith postcard from my postcard pal Connie F. Talk about coincidence!

Bessie Smith (1895-1937), Photograph courtesy of Michael Ochs Archives, Pomegranate Communications, Inc.

The music goddesses are telling me to take a moment for Bessie and Billie. They are the best medicine for the madness of the days ahead.

Perhaps, you need a moment too.

Here’s a listening guide of the Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith, singing “Backwater Blues” with James P. Johnson on the piano:

And for your pure listening pleasure, a 30-song compilation of Lady Day’s “top songs.”

Both women’s lives were cut short, but their influence reaches far beyond their years on this earth, and they continue to make a powerful impact on music in America.

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  1. Christine Brooks

     /  November 28, 2017

    What a lovely post and how prefect. Nice to be reminded to take time and enjoy the Music.

  2. LOVe 🙂 saving the links for another day. thanks for sharing ;)a

    • Yes. Take them in when you have quiet time and nice tall cup of tea. Oooohhh…or while you’re creating one of your masterpieces!

  3. Two of my favorite singers of all time! Saving the link also.

  4. I meant to post my previous comment here 🙂
    Yep, something is in the cup we’re drinking from. On Monday, I finished a screening of Wild Women Don’t have the Blues (Cali Newsreel) and today, I’ll be completing a discussion of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

    • Yes! I’d love to sit in on those conversations. I love what I’m doing with my other courses, but I miss discussing these works.

  5. Dr. Mon

     /  November 29, 2017

    I hope you find a way to weave them back into your teaching in the coming year.

    • They will find their way in my Shakespeare course next semester! LOL! The funny thing is I taught Women’s Lit this semester, but there was so much to cover, it never dawned on me to build them into the course. Oh well…next time!

  6. Yes, yes, yes and more yes. yes to Bessie Smith, yes to Billie Holiday, yes to teaching with them (wow, I wish my teachers had done that!), and yes to listening to them. Thank you.


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