American Treasures of the Library of Congress: Memory, Exhibit Object Focus

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Empress of The Blues

Bessie Smith
Carl Van Vechten
Bessie Smith
Gelatin silver print, 1936
Prints & Photographs Division
LC-USZ62-100863

Wasted Life Blues
Bessie Smith
Wasted Life Blues
Manuscript copy, 1929
Music Division

Bessie Smith gained immediate success in 1923 with her first recording "Down Hearted Blues"/"Gulf Coast Blues." Her renditions of Negro life in the South earned Smith the title "Empress of the Blues." She performed mainly in black theaters, but she did sing one evening at the New York apartment of Carl Van Vechten, a writer and amateur photographer who frequented Harlem nightclubs.

This copyright deposit manuscript of "Wasted Life Blues", in the hand of an unknown copyist, gives credit for the song to Smith's husband, Jack Gee, but when Smith recorded it, she claimed credit for it (and therefore the royalties from sales of the recording) herself; credit for Jack Gee has been crossed out and "Bessie Smith" substituted in pencil.

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