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The Blues and the Human Voice
stampedes- at the shops where her records were sold every time a new coupling was released. Bessie's medium was almost exclusively the blues—usually blues material written for her by others, but tailored to her own life and background.
Compared with the other important blues singers of her day, many of whom were namesakes but not relatives (Mamie Smith, Clara Smith and Trixie Smith), Bessie Smith was a giant among midgets. Tall and handsome, possessed of a majestic, compelling timbre, she had a hypnotic effect on her audience. Notwithstanding the disparity between the vocal fields of blues and spirituals, Danny Barker observed that there was something of a religious quality in her performances: "If you had any church background, like people who came from the South as I did, you would recognize the similarity between what she was doing and what those preachers and evangelists from there did, and how they moved people . . . Bessie did the same thing on the stage. She, in a sense, was like people like Billy Graham are today."2
Bessie Smith was not the only blues singer capable of casting this kind of a spell on her listeners. Huddie "Leadbelly" Led-better, a singer and guitarist, told his blues stories with the same violence of conviction that marked his personal life; during the years of Bessie's initial impact he was in jail for murder. Many years later, during another prison sentence for attempted homicide, he was granted a pardon by the governor of Louisiana, supposedly after the governor had listened to his singing. Lead-belly, who played a 12-string guitar, had a repertoire made up of work songs and blues.
A male counterpart of Bessie Smith, though the years of his greatest impact came almost a decade later, was "Big BilT Broonzy, the singer and guitarist Broonzy's rough-edged, gracefully phrased blues works, many of them his own compositions, were dominant in the race record market through the 1930s. He appeared in the 193S and '39 From Spirituals to Swing concerts at Carnegie Hall; in recent years, after a period of retirement, he has toured Europe and earned the esteem of numerous critics, some of whom consider him the greatest living blues artist.
The first sign of an extension of vocal jazz beyond the blues