Send Me to the ’Lectric Chair (Bessie Smith)

Among the records I assembled during my year in New York, combing the second-hand bins at Dayton’s, were all five volumes of bessie smith lp2Bessie Smith’s complete recordings, with their comprehensive notes by Chris Albertson. That set was an oddity of the LP era: the records were issued with the notion that they could be stacked and played in order, all ten of them, so volume one had Smith’s first and last recordings, and the subsequent albums narrowed to volume five, which was the only one to include four sides of music from a single period…

I listened to all those records at least once, but my guess is there were some sides I heard only that once. I knew how important Smith was, and in particular what a major influence she was for Dave Van Ronk, who had come to blues from trad jazz, so I wanted to immerse myself in her work. But, for one thing, I was a teenage boy with a guitar, and had come from Woody Guthrie rather than Louis Armstrong, so I was more inclined to the rural blues guitar guys. And, for another, the completeness of those records did not serve her well, particularly in the early period, where she tended to just be accompanied by piano and the songs tended to be straight twelve-bar blues, one merging into the next, all slow, majestic, and somber. Some had great lyrics, but after a while I just tuned out.

So call me a lightweight, but my favorite Bessie Smith sides were the ones that mixed blues inflections with more vaudevillian or ragtime pop settings. Of course, Dave had already turned me on to “You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon,” and I loved “Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle,” and then there was this gory little confection. It was a great recording, with Fletcher Henderson on piano, Charlie Green on trombone, and Joe Smith on cornet — much as jazz fans love Louis Armstrong’s accompaniments, Bessie Smith herself apparently considered Joe Smith a more sensitive sideman, and she sounds terrific in this company.

The composer credit on this song was to George Brooks, apparently a pseudonym for Henderson, but I’m dubious — the lyric is pretty ornate for someone who was not generally known as a lyricist, and bessie smithI’m guessing Henderson hired someone else to do those  duties. Since another song at the same session was “Them’s Graveyard Words” and six months later Smith recorded another Brooks song called “Dyin’ By the Hour,” it seems to have been a pretty doom-laden period for whatever lyricist was involved.

I have been singing this now for forty years, and keep going back and forth on the gender pronouns. Dave tended to sing Smith’s songs from the point of view of a woman, as they were written, and Mississippi John Hurt did the same when he did songs learned from blues queens, so at first I did that. Then I switched and began singing it from a male point of view, because it’s in the first person and that suited me as a protagonist… and then I switched back, because I decided I’d rather not be the protagonist of this particular story and was happier presenting it as a story about a woman striking back against a man, regretful though she might be afterwards.