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Rags to Riches

Camden Groff

Mrs. Baker

Lit Analysis

25 February 2019
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Camden Groff

Mrs. Baker

Literature Analysis

25 February 2019

Rags to Riches

Jazz Music was a big part of the 1920s. It brought many people together by the lyrics of

the songs and the flow of the music. With the uprising of jazz music being during the Jim Crow

Era, many African American jazz singers faced unneeded obstacles and few were able to make it

big. One jazz singer impacted the 1920s more than many others, Bessie Smith. Bessie Smith has

an impact on Jazz music and the Jazz Age, she became well known around the world also being

an influence and big part of the Harlem Renaissance, and she inspired many different upcoming

singers and people.

Bessie Smith also known as Elizabeth Smith was born April 15, 1894 in Chattanooga

Tennessee. Her parents, William and Laura Smith, both died when she was still a young girl. She

began as a street singer with help of her brother, Andrew. They were both getting money to help

with their poor family. In 1912, 18 year old Bessie Smith joined the Moses Stokes Company

which she went on tour with and then met another blues performer, ¨Ma¨ Rainey. They became

friends and continued to sing together going on tours and other events. The year 1923 was

probably Bessie Smith’s best year in her personal life and her professional life. She married a

man named Jack Gee and then she made her debut at Columbia Records. From there her career

took off releasing songs like “Gulf Coast Blues” and “Down Hearted Blues” which sold more
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than 750,000 in the first year of it's release. Later in her career she ended up receiving the name

“Empress of the Blues.” She earned this name due to her fantastic singing and music making.

The Jazz Age was a big part of the 1920s. The Jazz Age was a period in the 1920s and

1930s in which jazz music and dance styles rapidly gained nationwide popularity in the United

States. Bessie Smith was a very big part of The Jazz Age, “In March 1927, Bessie Smith laid

down 4 tracks for Columbia Records in New York City. One of these tunes, ‘Send me to the

lectric chair,’ stands as a landmark in that it is the first blues comment on the most powerful

punishment of all time” (Jackson 1). When Bessie was making music and being successful it was

also during the time of the Jim Crow era which was discrimination towards colored people.

When Bessie Smith said “Send me to the electric chair” she is trying the whites who are

discriminating her. Which impacted a lot of people throughout the Jazz Age because it gave them

confidence and ideas for trying against the unfair laws made in the Jim Crow era.

In addition, Bessie Smith became one of the most known jazz singers and people during

the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance was a social, and artistic uprising that took

place in Harlem, New York, taking place during the 1920s. During the time, it was known as the

"New Negro Movement", it was called this because of one of Alain Locke's anthologies. Bessie

Smith was a big part of this movement as well, creating music made her very well known.

“Fortunately, Smith’s personal life did not interfere with her musical success, as she rose to

become the most accomplished and highest paid african american entertainer of the Harlem

Renaissance” (Arogundade). People during the 1920s loved listening and buying her music

because she had controversial words and sayings in her songs which motivated other people to

do their own thing. Bessie Smith did not just get well known during her lifetime she was well
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known after her death as well. “Since her death Bessie Smith has been inducted into the Grammy

Hall of Fame, winning posthumous awards for her 1923 single “Downhearted Blues,” 1925

single “St. Louis Blues” with Louis Armstrong, and a 1928 single “Empty Bed Blues.” Smith has

also been honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, was inducted into the Rock

and Roll Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame, and the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame”

(Jackson). She continued to sell lots of her music and her peoples made money from her despite

her being alive. She was on of the most well known jazz singers to sing jazz music.

Finally, Bessie Smith inspired many upcoming jazz singers and singers as a whole. Her

music made other people inspired not just to make music, but to do other things to fight for the

african american civil rights and fight against the jim crow era laws. “Her singing talent has

exerted a huge influence on popular American singers; Mahalia Jackson, Janis Joplin and Norah

Jones have all given her credit as their inspiration” (Bessie). She has continued to inspire people

and new singers up to this day due to her unique music and singing style different from other


In conclusion, Bessie Smith had a true impact on the 1920s, Harlem Renaissance, and the

Jazz Age. She didn't live that long of a life, dying at the age of 43 in a tragic car accident, but for

the time she lived she made the most of it and she did everything she could to inspire people and

fight for the rights for black people. Bessie Smith has an impact on Jazz music and the Jazz Age.

She was a well known woman for her singing ability and the way she acted which inspired many

different musicians and people.

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Works Cited

Arogundade, Ben. “Stars of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance: Black Blues Singer Bessie Smith.”

Arungade, 2​ 9 Jul. 2016,



“Bessie Smith.” ​United States History, 2​ 012, https://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h3845.html.

Jackson, Erin. “Bessie Smith.” ​BlackPast, “8​ Jan. 2011,


Jackson, Mark Allan. “Journal of Popular Music Studies.” vol. 29, Dec. 2017,