Essence of Bessie Smith - Bessie Smith

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Essence of Bessie Smith - Bessie Smith

1, 2 CD(s) - Classic Female Blues - Label: Delta Distribution, Essence - Distributor: Metronome/Discovery, Delta Music/Sony DADC - Released: 23/10/200...

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Review of "Essence of Bessie Smith - Bessie Smith"

published 11/08/2017 | 2mennycds
Member since : 28/08/2015
Reviews : 286
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About me :
Best wishes to all, and thanks for your kind rates and comments, have been half-expecting the latest announcement for at least the last year. Have thoroughly enjoyed being a member over the last couple of years or so.
Pro Moving lyrics, powerful singing, strong arrangements
Cons Some unsubtle bawdy songs
Quality and consistency of tracks
Cover / Inlay Design and Content
Value for Money

"Nobody knows you when you're down and out..."

Essence of Bessie Smith - Bessie Smith

Essence of Bessie Smith - Bessie Smith


Sadly, although the most mundane – and conversely, the most expensive consumer products – earn money as well as points on Ciao, music reviews aren’t only exempt from Diamond awards and Premium Fund – like books – but don’t earn a single penny in the writing or for any rating received.

Sharing some great music was my main reason for joining the site. I think it’s the poorer for the absence of music reviews, and despite earning no money for writing them, I still want to recommend some worthwhile listening.


Not many people can claim, single-handed, to have threatened and chased off a group of Ku Klux Klan members as they opposed a black music show. Even fewer black people could make such a claim. Bessie Smith is probably the only black WOMAN to have done so. She later disdainfully described them, as “just a bunch of sissies!” She was a large, potentially intimidating woman, whose physical presence and strength were matched only by the power of her voice.


Born in 1894, Bessie and her six siblings were was orphaned in childhood. She and took to singing on street corners for passers-by. She began to sing in travelling vaudeville shows, and made quite an impression. When she made her first recording, (“Down Hearted Blues”) for Columbia, in 1923, it sold 780,000 copies – a quite remarkable achievement in its day.

Many of her songs cover poverty and its attendant concerns and miseries (including crime and imprisonment), but into this mix were thrown lighter-hearted songs, often about alcohol and sex, the latter usually couched in fairly unambiguous innuendo.

Bessie died in 1937 as the result of a car crash. Sadly, by then she had frittered away much of her income on her hedonistic lifestyle.

For many years her grave was unmarked; in the 1960s the rock singer Janis Joplin remedied this, commissioning a memorial that declares: “The greatest blues singer in the world will never stop singing”.

Why listen?

Bessie Smith won’t be to all tastes, but does deserve to be better known. She was a legend in her lifetime (albeit fairly briefly), and is still highly esteemed by fans of blues music today. Her voice was big and powerful, but she didn’t simply bawl out her songs; she conveyed huge feeling, her voice soft, plaintive and subtle as well as strong.

Rock and roll and jazz have their roots in early blues music, and indirectly blues has influenced much modern western music.

Despite the age of the recordings, the sound quality of these recordings is generally good.

As well as Bessie’s voice, the tunes, and the lyrics, the arrangements add a lot – some lovely clarinet or trumpet, for example, and some gorgeous and highly accomplished piano. Eric Clapton included a version of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” on his “Unplugged” CD/DVD recording: “If ever I get my hands on a dollar again, gonna hold on to it till that old eagle grins… it’s mighty strange, without a doubt, nobody wants to know you when you’re down and out, I mean, when you’re down and out.”

I find some of her material a little bawdy for my tastes, but this is easily remedied by using the skip button.

The album

This is a double CD in a jewel case, contains 46 tracks and plays for a total of 143 minutes. The fold-out sleeve provides three pages of autobiographical notes as well as the track listing.

Bizarrely the playlist that displays on a hi-fi or computer when the CD is playing is incorrect for Disc 2 – the playlist that displays duplicates that of Disc 1, though thankfully the music on the two discs isn’t duplicated!
The artwork/photographs are minimal, but to be fair there are limited photographs available, and this is a budget-priced album.

Some of the tracks

~ ~ ~ ~ Down Hearted Blues
Appropriately the album starts with this slow blues, her greatest “hit”. “Trouble, trouble, I’ve had it all my days… It seems like trouble gonna follow me to my grave…” she sings out, and the piano fills in behind her strong voice, with some nice rolls. I find the lyrics, Bessie’s voice and the piano a heady mix.

~ ~ ~ ~ ‘Taint Nobody’s Business If I Do
Another strong lonesome blues with evocative piano. Bessie sings a whole list of things that she may do in her despondency, and adds the refrain “’Taint nobody’s business if I do…”

~ ~ ~ ~ Careless Love
Another powerful vocal from Bessie here, with some fine jazzy accompaniment. I have several renditions of this song by different blues or jazz singers, but, whilst they all have something to offer, none have a vocal as intense as Bessie’s, in my view. The lyrics are slightly unusual in that, rather than berating a cheating or departing lover, love itself is perceived as the enemy.

~ ~ ~ ~ What’s The Matter Now?
A more upbeat song, despite the theme of being mistreated. I like the way that the piano stops from time to give a staccato effect to the song.

~ ~ ~ ~ Back Water Blues
Blues legend Big Bill Broonzy told the story that a number of blues singers were taken to view the devastation of the notorious floods of the Mississippi Delta in 1927 with a view to an award for the best song, and that this song by Bessie Smith was declared the best penned by any of them.

“Well it rained 5 days and the skies turned dark as night…”

To me, this song chillingly tells of thunder and lightning, of a rescue by boat, of countless people made homeless, of standing on a hill and looking down on the site of the former home which has now collapsed and vanished. A look at vintage images on the internet make for harrowing viewing. And, of course, this song really isn’t that far removed – impoverished people are still struggling after the 2005 New Orleans flood…

To me, this is the best song on the album

~ ~ ~ ~ Kitchen Man
A more upbeat and risqué song about a woman who doesn’t want to lose her kitchen man. I like the piano and jazzy guitar on it.

~ ~ ~ ~ Nobody Knows you
“Once I lived the life of a millionaire, spending all my money, I did not care…”
“If ever I get my hands on a dollar again, gonna hold on to it till that old eagle grins… it’s mighty strange, without a doubt, nobody wants to know you when you’re down and out, I mean, when you’re down and out.”

To me, a strong contender for best song on this album, with Bessie’s voice letting rip and languishing softly in turn. To those unfamiliar with the song, it’s a reflection on being down and out when hard times come – despite apparent former popularity when plenty of money was to hand. To me, it’s the more moving because it echoes Bessie’s own experiences as she squandered much of the money her singing gave her.

Concluding comments

I have to rate this 5 stars Its 46 tracks really do substantiate its claim to represent “The Essence” of Bessie Smith”, and its price makes it an ideal purchase for anyone interested.

In my opinion, it needs – and deserves – to be listened to rather than played as background music; using it for the latter just won’t highlight its strengths and may cause the hearer to dismiss it without really giving it adequate chance.


~~~ the lyrics. Some of the themes may seem far removed from 21st Century Britain, but many are timeless: being cheated on, or losing a lover, financial anxieties and feeling alone and vulnerable. Some of the motifs and images, are very graphic.

~~~ some of the of the more “good time” songs, which to some extent balance the downbeat sentiments of the blues featured. As indicated above, some of these are on the raunchy side, but not all are – for example, the fairly familiar “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”.

~~~ Bessie’s voice – and her use of it

~~~ the arrangements of many of the songs, in particular, the piano and brass/woodwind accompaniment in places is truly great


~~~ some of the bawdy material. The innuendo is pretty unsubtle, even if it ticked the early censorship boxes!

~~~ however, this, the album purports to represent “The Essence Of Bessie Smith” and, love or dislike it, this material is without question an integral part of that essence.

The album is currently available from Amazon from £7.99 new CD, MP3 £12.98. Individual tracks are available in MP3, but, to me, it’s worth buying the whole album in one format or the other to sample, and hopefully enjoy!

© 2mennycds August 2017

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Comments on this review

  • jb0077 published 16/08/2017
  • euphie published 15/08/2017
    e :o)
  • kiss_me2070 published 14/08/2017
    Very well reviewed - E.
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Product Information : Essence of Bessie Smith - Bessie Smith

Manufacturer's product description

1, 2 CD(s) - Classic Female Blues - Label: Delta Distribution, Essence - Distributor: Metronome/Discovery, Delta Music/Sony DADC - Released: 23/10/2006 - 4006408333111

Product Details

EAN: 4006408333111


Listed on Ciao since: 18/07/2011