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Blues Empress in Black Chattanooga

Bessie Smith and the Emerging Urban South

Michelle R. Scott

Publication Year: 2008

As one of the first African American vocalists to be recorded, Bessie Smith is a prominent figure in American popular culture and African American history. Michelle R. Scott uses Smith's life as a lens to investigate broad issues in history, including industrialization, Southern rural to urban migration, black community development in the post-emancipation era, and black working-class gender conventions. Focusing her analysis on Chattanooga, Tennessee, the large industrial and transportation center where Smith was born, Scott explores how the expansion of the Southern railroads and the development of iron foundries, steel mills, and sawmills created vast employment opportunities in the postbellum era, contributing to Chattanooga's African American community and an emergent blues culture.

Published by: University of Illinois Press

front cover

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Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

“What do you know about the blues?” and “Why are you interested in Bessie Smith?” are questions I was repeatedly asked as I embarked upon my study of Bessie Smith and Chattanooga several years ago. As a child of the 1970s and 1980s and a native of the West Coast, my passion for the story of a southern woman who sang the blues in the 1920s ..

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pp. xi-xiv

This work began as a seminar paper for a Cornell University class in African American women’s history in Spring 1997 and eventually evolved into my doctoral dissertation and finally the completed manuscript. I was fortunate to have a group of dedicated advisors who helped me shape this work from the initial research stages to the final written drafts, ...

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Introduction: Uncovering the Life of a Blues Woman

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pp. 1-10

In Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the early 1900s, African Americans were not a downtrodden minority but a vibrant 40 percent or more of the population.1 Only thirty years removed from the abolition of slavery and four years after the Supreme Court legalized racial segregation, black Chattanoogans struggled with ...

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1. Beyond the Contraband Camps: Black Chattanooga from the Civil War to 1880

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pp. 11-34

In the late fall of 1863, Chattanooga, Tennessee, was a southern city that had experienced tremendous change in its physical and demographic landscape. The battles of the Civil War had marred the early industrial city, leveling churches, office buildings, and homes, twisting railroad lines, and overturning cobbled streets. ...

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2. "The Freest Town on the Map": Black Migration to New South Chattanooga

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pp. 35-54

In the aftermath of Reconstruction in the 1880s, the South attempted to reconfigure itself politically, economically, and socially in the wake of the removal of federal troops from the region. For Chattanooga, specifically, the 1880s saw a boom in its population and the development of industry. ...

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3. The Empress's Playground: Bessie Smith and Black Childhood in the Urban South

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pp. 55-80

In the rural Deep South in the 1880s, many African American families experienced a period of tremendous upheaval. Prompted by racial strife and economic loss, they packed up their meager belongings in well-worn trunks and traveled by wagon, train, and foot to southern urban areas in search of a better life. ...

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4. Life on "Big Ninth" Street: The Emerging Blues Culture in Chattanooga

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pp. 81-112

While the first of this chapter’s epigraphs, written in 1897 by the African American pastor of Chattanooga’s First Congregational church, refers to the streets of all urban landscapes, the second, a poem by the Chattanooga native Ishmael Reed, reveals that the greatest “exhibition hall” of Chattanooga in the early twentieth century was the vibrant Ninth Street. ...

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5. An Empress in Vaudeville: Bessie Smith on the Theater Circuit

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pp. 113-134

The African American entertainment industry of the early twentieth century flourished with minstrel shows, vaudeville performances, and musical comedies. Inspired by performances in their small-town theaters, festivals, and carnivals, hundreds of young African Americans dreamed of joining the chorus of the Mahara Minstrels ...

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Epilogue: A Blues Woman's Legacy

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pp. 135-138

Bessie Smith lived much of her career and the remainder of her life in the manner that she sang about in “Young Woman’s Blues.” She was a relatively young woman of thirty-one when she earned her first Columbia recording contract, and the “runnin’ ’round” that she had done as a popular vaudeville artist only increased. ...


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pp. 139-172


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pp. 173-192


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pp. 193-198

back cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780252092374
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252033384

Page Count: 216
Publication Year: 2008

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Smith, Bessie, 1894-1937.
  • Singers -- United States -- Biography.
  • Blues (Music) -- Tennessee -- Chattanooga -- History and criticism.
  • African Americans -- Tennessee -- Chattanooga -- History.
  • Chattanooga (Tenn.) -- History.
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