Music and cultural traditions are quintessential aspects of American life. This essay will explore the relationship between experience and suffering. Our discussion will examine the life and work of Bessie Smith and the Native American custom of “vision quest.” The conclusion of the essay will illustrate how suffering creates good blues musicians while vision quest reveals the future so that “the blues” can be avoided.
The Blues and Vision Quest
You gotta pay the dues if you wanna sing the blues,” so the saying goes. (Whitney) Orphaned at a young age, growing up in a racist and anti-feminist era, Bessie Smith definitely paid her dues.
Bessie began her career at a very early age singing on street corners for loose change. Bessie’s extraordinary voice brought her great fame in the black community. Yet her personal life was plagued with turmoil. She was an alcoholic whose notorious temper always got the best of her. To make matters worse, her second husband Jack Gee was physically abusive and unfaithful to her. Many of her songs detailed her roller-coaster relationship with her husband. This is especially evident in the words to ‘Please Help Me Get Him Off My Mind”:
It’s all about a man who always kicks and dogs me aroun;
And when I try to kill him, that’s when my love for him come down.”
Yet all the while singing about her problematical relationship with her husband, she reveals her own promiscuous tendencies, In “Young Woman’s Blues” she says:
I’m gonna drink good moonshine and rub these browns down. See that long lonesome road, Lawd you know it’s gonna end, And I’m a good woman and I can get plenty men.” (Whitney)
In addition to her issues with men and alcohol addiction, historians note that she also had a disdain for white people. Bessie’s contempt for the white race existed in spite of the fact that she was very popular with whites in certain regions of the country.
The blues singer disliked the attitude that many whites had towards blacks and she had experienced these attitudes first hand.
Bessie’s music was greatly influenced by the experiences that she had as a child growing up in Tennessee. Much of her music did not address racism directly but it did address the chasm between the classes. For instance, the song entitled “Poor Man’s Blues” asserts;
Mister rich man, rich man, open up your heart and mind
Give the poor man a chance, help stop these hard, hard times.
While you’re livin’ in your mansion you don’t know what hard times means
Poor working man’s wife is starving your wife is livin’ like a queen.(Whitney)
Bessie Smith lived her life to the extremes, she drank too much, fought too much, engaged in numerous extramarital affairs with men and women, but nonetheless she was considered the Empress of Blues. Even though she had acquired great wealth for a black woman in the early twenties, she was a black, performer that many could identify with.
It is evident that Bessie Smith used her own life experiences to form the blues that she sang. The singer speaks of her suffering at the hands of an abusive husband and chronicles her bout with alcoholism and promiscuity. The popularity of her music was due in part to the conviction with which she sang. Conviction that could only come from a woman who was telling the story of her experience — her suffering.
While blues songs relay the past experiences and suffering of the singer, vision quests serve to aid boys in discovering the experiences that they will have in the future. The ritual involves pubescent boys going on a spiritual journey of enlightenment. During this journey no food is eaten and the young boys do not sleep but spend the time in deep meditation, prayer and observation. During this period of solitude they are seeking a vision which will grant them meaning and direction in their lives. This ritual is supposed to help the young boys mature and have a greater understanding of their responsibility to themselves, their tribe and nature.
Vision quests are very important in the transition from boyhood to manhood for Native Americans. Some observers may find the manifestations of these visions peculiar. As Encarta explains,
The resulting vision, often in a dream, might be of an animal, ancestor, object, or natural phenomenon, such as a storm. After the experience, a shaman helped the individual interpret the vision, which could reveal the future or provide a guardian spirit. For a boy passing into manhood, the vision would give clues about the name he should receive as an adult — in contrast to the name he was given at birth. Afterward, a person might then carry a totemic object representing the vision, such as a part of an animal, in a medicine bundle.” (“Native Americans of North America”)
The vision quest is the first step towards manhood and establishes the future experiences that the individual will have. This practice is common among Native Americans and Aboriginal people throughout the world. Native Americans believe that knowledge of the future will prepare young men to accomplish their life’s work and help them to avoid unnecessary suffering.
It is often said, “experience is the greatest teacher.” In the case of a blues musician they take all of their past experiences and quite eloquently convert them into verse. They put their most intimate experiences in full public view. They sing about their sadness and tragedies as a therapeutic release. As a result, their music relays certain genuineness that only suffering and experience can produce. Listener’s can often relate to the feelings that are expressed through song and quite often the experience of the singer is identical to that of the listener. The relationship between suffering and great blues musicians is very evident.
Unlike other forms of music, the blues was created as a direct result of suffering. Many blues musicians like Bessie Smith, were products of the segregated south and were victims of racism and classicism. Bessie Smith’s tumultuous life provided the setting for the lyrics that she wrote and sang.
The blues is not a form of music that everybody can sing. The blues represents the experience that the musician has suffered through. In essence, the blues musician would not exist if suffering did not exist. The blues is not merely a form of artistic expression; it is a state of being. You have to live through the suffering to be able to articulate it properly. Langston Hughes said it best when he asserted, “Everybody wanna sing my blues, nobody wanna live my blues.” I think that it is safe to say that Bessie Smith lived the blues and was acquainted with suffering and these things made her a great blues musician.
In contrast to the plight of the blues musician, the vision quest ritual is a preventive measure that allows young boys an opportunity to ponder the course of their future. They are trying to find a way to avoid the pitfalls of “the blues.” The vision quest aids them in their endeavor to avoid the suffering that life can bring when the future is unknown. By way of self-denial and intentional deprivation they look to pave their roads of life with happiness and not sorrow.
Albertson, Chris. Bessie. Scarborough House: 1994
Bessie Smith. 4 March 2003. http://www.redhotjazz.com/bessie.html
Biographies: Life and Times of the Great Ones. 4 March 2003 Public Broadcasting Station. http://www.pbs.org/jazz/biography/artist_id_smith_bessie.htm
Native Americans of North America,” Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2003
http://encarta.msn.com 1997-2003 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.
Vision Quest. Info Please. www.QuestforVision.com
Whitney, Ross. Reflections Of 1920’s and 3O’s Street Life In The Music Of Bessie Smith. California State University: 1995. http://www.bluesnet.hub.org/readings/bessie.html