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  • Writer's pictureKurt Keefner

The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith

Updated: Oct 17, 2020

The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith is an off-Broadway musical that my wife and I recently saw in Washington, DC. It stars Miche Braden as the great blueswoman as well as three on-stage musicians who occasionally contribute dialogue. Interspersed between dynamic performances of Smith’s songs, Braden tells in the first person the story of Smith’s life from childhood to death. The narrative frame is that on the last night of her life, Smith was supposed to play an all-white venue. The manager tells her she must enter by the back door, so Smith walks off and goes to a black nightclub where the action is set.

My wife and I stayed after the show for a discussion with the playwright, the theater’s dramaturge and its artistic director. We learned that the play was a group effort: Angelo Parra developed the script in collaboration with director Joe Brancto and Ms. Braden after many readings and run-throughs. Braden arranged the music, nudging Smith’s songs in the direction of jazz and rhythm & blues to make them more varied and accessible.

I deliberately did not read up on Bessie Smith before writing this essay, although I listened to a few of her songs. I want to discuss the show as a self-contained production and use it as a jumping off point for some observations of my own. The Smith I refer to here is the one in the show, not the historical one. I hasten to add that I am not an expert on the blues, although I think I know in a general way what they are about.

“The devil’s music” is what some black churchgoers called black popular music like the blues. And it is the devil’s music by Christian standards: it embraces sex, violence, booze—and despair. Despair is a sin for some Christians because it implies that you think God is not omnipresent and good. But the blues stares despair in the face and sings right through it, without denying it. To many bluesmen, I imagine, those stiff-with-starch churchgoers seemed repressed to the point of being deluded, if not downright hypocritical.

The Smith of the show was a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed woman who liked both men and other women, but she could sing the roof off. She proved that, despite conventional prejudice, big, curvy women can be sexual powerhouses. The most memorable number in the production was “St. Louis Blues,” in which Braden and sexophonist—pardon me, saxophonist—Anthony Nelson, Jr. chase each other around the stage in a lascivious pas de deux.

In keeping with the nature of the blues, Smith was a warrior in the battle of the sexes, trading physical and emotional violence with her husband, but she was devoted to her adopted son, whom she called “Snooks.” Her husband vengefully had her son taken away from her by the authorities on the grounds of her moral unfitness as a mother. This is one of many painful moments in Smith’s life, and watching Braden portray Smith begging the judge to let her keep her child is heartbreaking.

The Bessie of The Devil’s Music is what I call “exquisite”—a perfect embodiment of a human quality. Bessie’s exquisite quality is that she lived the “lusty, lustful life.” “Lusty” does not mean “lustful.” It means “healthy and strong; full of vigor.” Smith was loaded with energy, she enjoyed sex with many different people, and she drank more than her share of “white lightning.” And of course, she made passionate music. (For more about the exquisite, see this essay.)

The video embedded above is of acceptable quality, but this video of a reimagined version of “Sweet Child o’ Mine” in a blues style with Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox will give you a better idea of the power of Braden’s singing.

The conflict of the staid churchgoer versus the lusty, lustful blues singer is an obvious instance of the soul-body dichotomy. According to this dichotomy human beings are a composite of an other-worldly soul and an earthy, earthly body. These components pull in opposite directions, with the soul usually trying to accept God’s will and the body indulging itself in the sins of the flesh. This view goes back at least to Plato, although it reached its obvious pinnacle in Christianity.

Many people who believe in this dichotomy try to reconcile or accommodate the warring factors, but many put one factor over the other, perhaps alternately. Either they suppress their bodily urges and spend a lot of time praying, or they give in to their bodily urges and just occasionally feel guilty and reach out for some kind of reassurance from the divine.

(“Bodily urges” here does not just sex and alcohol. It’s not simple hedonism. Dancing and smoking would count, too. And, of course, rousing, worldly music.)

This is of course a false dichotomy and it denies the possibility of rational, secular happiness and responsibility. Starting in the 18th century, with the Age of Reason, the tension between the warring factors lessened and the possibility of pursuing a refined happiness in this world became credible to many educated people in the West. The rising tide of political liberty in that era made it possible to build a rational life, and thus encouraged people to abandon the soul/body dichotomy or at least to relegate it to the status of a token belief, ritually observed.

The error of pitting soul against body is excusable in Bessie’s situation because of the circumstances black Americans found themselves in the first third of the twentieth-century, when both Jim Crow and the blues reached their zenith. Black people weren’t for the most part free to prosper in a worldly manner, and only a small fraction found a way to do so. It was, for example, very difficult for black people to enter the professions or to achieve a top position in the building trades. Oppressed and denied access to many of the good things in life, they would understandably be tempted to turn to the comforts of religion or to a celebration of life in the raw, sometimes both on different days.

(I am of course over-generalizing and exaggerating here. Many black people made different choices and were not impaled on the soul/body dichotomy. Furthermore, the same conflict existed in the white community too, but the greater opportunities that most white people had compared to most black people made their choices less stark.)

However, Bessie Smith was more than a tragic philosophical error. The woman was a force of nature. She had that pre-philosophical fire. It was not entirely directed at its proper objects or well integrated by the standards of a rational philosophy, but it was powerful. She made art. She didn’t give in to oppression. She stood up to the KKK. She created her own touring show with musicians and dancers and managed it well. She got her own railroad car so she and her company wouldn’t have to find a "colored" hotel. She refused to go in through the back door. But we cannot escape the fact of her dissolute lifestyle.

Did she have to be dissolute? One might cite Smith’s contemporary, the polished black singer Paul Robeson as a counter-example, since he was successful, stable, and not dissolute. But Robeson was the son of a minister and went to Rutgers on an academic scholarship. Bessie was an orphan who danced for coins in the street. And even Robeson’s greatest successes were with Negro spirituals and Broadway songs where he played a slave.

I mentioned that Bessie had the pre-philosophical life force. Some of my readers may think that there is nothing that exists that is “pre-philosophical.” But there is. Life is pre-philosophical. As I wrote in the essay linked above: “We need to remind ourselves that philosophy serves life, not the other way around. Philosophy helps our natural inclinations find their proper ends, but those natural inclinations and our zeal for living do not descend from philosophy—they motivate it. This way of looking at things leads to passion, and it is passion that makes one want to live, rather than merely wanting not to die.” Bessie may not have had a good philosophy, but she certainly had passion.

Bessie’s life would probably have been different if she lived in a more rational culture, but she didn’t. What happens if fully developed, practical reason is not encouraged, or even allowed, in a human life? Then the life force will gush like a volcano erupting in all directions. It’s still powerful, but not well ordered.

So am I justifying Smith taking the side of the flesh in the false dichotomy? Aren’t I leaving out the common sense secular life? Couldn’t Bessie have found a career selling hair care products? (That’s what Madam C.J. Walker, the most successful African American woman of the time, did.)

I think not. The artistic temperament craves self-expression of the kind that cannot find an outlet in conventional, commercial endeavors. Like black churchgoers on the other side of the false dichotomy, Bessie had something to proclaim. Not praise for God, to be sure, but assertion of her own self, a self that stood up and said, “Here I am, world. You can destroy me, but you can’t defeat me.”

For many, music is the form that such a proclamation will take. But why the blues? Couldn’t she have expressed herself through a more refined genre of music? Well, putting aside the unwarranted elitism that question implies, I would have to say that Bessie Smith was not going to become an opera diva. She was going to work within the genres of her time and place, and become what she was: “the Empress of the Blues.”

And it’s hard to separate the music from the lifestyle. If you’re on the road, it’s difficult to maintain a monogamous relationship. If you work at night, you’re likely to sleep during the day. If you need something to keep you up when you are onstage and to help you come down when you’re off, you’re likely to turn to alcohol or drugs. Because the performing life is both ecstatically emotional and boringly routine, it is a roller coaster, and it is too much to expect that someone in Bessie’s situation is going to lead a “normal” life.

No, it seems that we do have to excuse at least some of Bessie’s decadence. But that sounds so condescending! You don’t want to condescend to a force of nature, not to her face, and not to her ghost’s face either. We might say that Bessie lived in a tragic situation, but we should not even hint that she was pathetic. We have to say that, whatever her flaws, Smith deserved respect. You might not hold her up as a model for your children, but you should let yourself feel a deep kinship with her life force and the way in which she expressed it.

The real Bessie Smith

I keep emphasizing the dissolute side of Bessie Smith in order to pose a question: Why do those of us who have stable middle-class secular lives love Bessie’s music and her spirit? Why do we embrace the earthiness and even the vulgarity? The answer may seem obvious: Because it’s good. But that isn’t obvious. We happy moderns do not live the blues like many of Bessie’s generation did. We would never approve of such behavior in our children, so why do we enjoy the spectacle of it?

Perhaps the reason we love Bessie and the blues has to do with something lacking in our lives. We’ve left behind the energetic life of our forebears. Most educated people do not believe in a literal soul/body dichotomy, but we live a mind/body dichotomy. In our era, many of us sit in offices or at least do brainwork indoors detached from our bodies. And then to take care of our bodies, we go to the gym, which is an intellectual and spiritual wasteland.

Think of the famous quote from Thoreau: “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and die with their song still inside them.” That’s taking the matter too far, but there is some truth to it. Passion wants to get out unless it’s defeated. In the last century or so, primarily through the vehicle of African American music, the whole world has broken through its desperation and begun to sing its song.

Maybe most adults would not allow their children to lead the lusty, lustful life, but they do so anyway. Some white kids of the last few decades, who’ve never been oppressed and who’ve had much greater educational opportunities, have chosen the lusty, lustful, self-expressive life, too. As one member of the audience pointed out after the show, many classic rock stars are rather similar to Smith. Their choices are understandable, at least up to the point where actual self-destructiveness begins. In modern society, few places exist for a young person with outsized passion and a desire for self-expression to go. I suppose one could pursue a career in classical music, but that is not a live option for most people, and anyway very few classical musicians get to be at the front of the stage, performing their hearts out. Our culture is certainly not as bereft of rational influences as the culture of Bessie’s time, but we have little place for ecstatic overflow in today’s ultra-controlled world.

One way to integrate soul/mind and body is to take Bessie’s devilish life and treat it like art. This is still a form of entente between mind and body, not a perfect blending, but that may be the best that can be achieved, since few activities in life tap into physical, intellectual and emotional energy all at the same time. I would say that showcasing someone like Bessie Smith in a “normal” middle-class theater, although it is a kind of "bracketing," is not settling for second best, and I don’t think it is condescending: it is an appreciation of what is humanly possible, a celebration, an embracing of that passion that makes all else possible.

That’s what the devil’s music does for us. It lets us bear witness to passion. And maybe, if we fan the spark, it will help us to kindle passion within ourselves.

(Note: The Devil’s Music does not seem to be touring as of this writing, but if you get a chance to see it, seize it.)

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