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Blues Empress in Black Chattanooga: Bessie Smith and the Emerging Urban South Paperback – August 4, 2008

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 216 pages
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press; First Printing edition (August 4, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0252075455
  • ISBN-13: 978-0252075452
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,509,093 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


"An interesting, solidly researched, well-organized, well-told contribution to the social history of the blues. . . . Recommended."--Choice

“In this interesting, highly readable, and meticulously documented account, Scott ... crafts a fascinating social history by discussing the post-Civil War growth of the African American community in Chattanooga.”--History: Reviews of New Books


"A richly researched, painstakingly documented glimpse of southern urban life around the turn of the twentieth century."--Journal of American Ethnic History

Book Description

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.

Arguing that the rise of blues culture and the success of female blues artists like Bessie Smith are connected to the rapid migration and industrialization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Scott focuses her analysis on Chattanooga, Tennessee, the large industrial and transportation center where Smith was born. This study 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. Chronicling the growth and development of the African American Chattanooga community, Scott examines the Smith family's migration to Chattanooga and the popular music of black Chattanooga during the first decade of the twentieth century, and culminates by delving into Smith's early years on the vaudeville circuit.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Tony Thomas on January 6, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book does a masterful job at discussing the foundation and growth of the Black community in Chattanooga especially charting the circumstances that made African Americans like Bessie Smith's parents migrate there in the 19th century. It is often forgotten that before the migration of Southern Blacks to the cities of the North and the West, there was a migration of rural Black folk to the cities of the South. We get a picture of the New South growth of Chattanooga and how the exploitation of poor Black people was integral to that.

What we do not get much of is discussion of African American music and culture, particularly the influences that were expressed in Bessie Smith's music. The author does give some mention of Brass bands in Chattanooga and more mention of Black commercial entertainment that boomed in the late 19th and early 20th Century. However, Scott is chiefly discusses such things and very much else insofar as they reflect business achievement by African American entrepeneurs, rather than expressions of the development of Black theatrical or musical culture.

There is almost nothing in this book about Black secular music and nothing about the Blues and its development or the particular blues that Bessie presented. Indeed, the author makes frequent references to other biographies of Bessie Smith where she expects her readers to find out about Bessie Smith's life, music, and culture.

This is unfortunate as Smith was a pivotal figure in American culture as a whole.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By V. Phin on January 8, 2010
Format: Paperback
Dr. Scott's monograph uses Bessie Smith as an inspirative framework for her inquiry into the experiences of African Americans in the New South during the Nadir. The book is less about Bessie Smith as a person, and more about what shaped the community which, in turn, shaped her. What brought her parents there. What Bessie saw, growing up. The emerging business community of which she became a part. If you want a biography of Bessie Smith, this is not the book for you. Scott is primarily interested in urban black community and how recreational activities were organized, performed, and replicated, particularly within the realm of gender. Some of the early chapters feel rather light on substance, but Scott hits her stride whenever she discusses music. "Life on 'Big Ninth' Street" is an especially engrossing chapter. As part of the scholarly discussion of the music business during the Nadir, this is a worthy addition.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Lawrence G. Miller on June 21, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition
I learned some things from Michelle Scott's bio of songstress Bessie Smith. But I did not learn much about Bessie herself. This is contextual history and most of it pre-dates her short lifespan. I live in Chattanooga and know of many of the locations described. I appreciate the descriptions of the societal and cultural milieu of post Civil War Chattanooga and the book's focus upon African American life.

The book is obviously derived from the author's academic research. While sources are well documented, it hampers the readability of the story to be told. There are a few other books available about Bessie Smith and I will probably check them out to find her story. At least I have a greater knowledge of the culture from which she came.
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