Bessie Smith – Down Hearted Blues

Let’s go back…way back. Music did exist before the 50s and sometimes I like to explore it. These are the talented artists who inspired later generations that we listen to. We cannot forget the pioneers of any genre. Artists like Mahalia Jackson, Janis Joplin, and Norah Jones have all given Bessie Smith credit as their inspiration.

Whenever I hear Bessie Smith I hear pain and greatness all at once. I’ve written about her song No One Loves You When You’re Down And Out and I’ve been revisiting her lately. This song was her debut single in 1923.

I got into Bessie Smith from listening to Janis Joplin and reading about her. Bessie’s voice sends chills up my spine…that is my litmus test. This particular song grabs me because of Smith’s voice and the recording vibe. She sings it, means it, and she damn well lived it. The sound of the record and her voice is just unbeatable. Yes, we have digital now but digital could not give you this sound.

She was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on April 15, 1894. She lost her dad while she was an infant and her mom when she was 7-8 years old. She was raised by her tough older sister. To help support her orphaned siblings, Bessie began her career as a Chattanooga street musician, singing in a duo with her brother Andrew to earn money to support their poor family.

She is credited with recording more than 160 songs between 1923 and 1933. Smith performed on stage throughout the southern United States and recorded with such jazz greats as Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, and Coleman Hawkins.

Before the Great Depression, Bessie was the highest-paid black entertainer in the world, collecting as much as two thousand dollars a week to perform. She was accompanied by great musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Lonnie Johnson, and Benny Goodman.

This song was written by  Alberta Hunter and Lovie Austin. The song is about a mistreated woman and had been recorded by fellow blues singer Alberta Hunter in 1922. A year later Bessie Smith sang it with pain, passion, and power as if it was her own song. The record sold more copies than any blues or jazz record had before…780,000 in the first six months after the release, #1 in the Billboard charts for 4 weeks, it helped to save Columbia from imminent bankruptcy and made Bessie a star.

They called Bessie Smith the “Empress of the Blues,” and for good reason.

Down Hearted Blues

Gee, but it’s hard to love someone
when that someone don’t love you!
I’m so disgusted, heart-broken, too;
I’ve got those down-hearted blues.

Once I was crazy ‘bout a man;
he mistreated me all the time,
The next man I get has got to promise me
to be mine, all mine!

Trouble, trouble, I’ve had it all my days,
Trouble, trouble, I’ve had it all my days,
It seems like trouble
going to follow me to my grave.

I ain’t never loved but three men in my life,
I ain’t never loved but three men in my life,
My father, my brother,
the man that wrecked my life.

It may be a week, it may be a month or two,
It may be a week, it may be a month or two,
But the day you quit me, honey,
it’s comin’ home to you.

I got the world in a jug, the stopper’s in my hand,
I got the world in a jug, the stopper’s in my hand,
I’m gonna hold it until
you meet some of my demands.


Author: Badfinger (Max)

Power Pop fan, Baseball fan, old movie and tv show fan... and a songwriter, bass and guitar player.

27 thoughts on “Bessie Smith – Down Hearted Blues”

  1. Wow, this was 100 years ago. It sounds wonderful. What a talent, and life. Imagine being orphaned and having to perform to provide for your fellow siblings. To put the time frame in perspective, she was about the same age as the Disneys, who were starting their ‘Laugh-o-Gram’ Studio in KC when this song came out. I’d love to travel back to that time period to see these things happening firsthand.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I would love to see this time as well. I had to put it in perspective…when Janis was talking about Smith it was around 46 years in the past at the time…now I talk about music around the same time back.
      I just looked up Laugh-o-Gram’ Studio…that is really cool.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The perspective of the time frame is an eye opener, isn’t it? I’ve thought the same thing about looking back. Me talking about the 70s today is like when I was little and my grandma and her friends would talk about the 20s. It’s stunning how close we were to the 20s back then. When I was little I just thought it was a boring decade. Sheesh.

        I’m fascinated with that Laugh-O-Gram time period. The Disney corporation of today is a behemoth money machine that doesn’t want anything to do with the Walt Disney legacy, which makes me sad.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Oh I cannot stand Disney today… it’s lost everything I once liked about it.
        I do love the 20s…I learned about it from reading about silent movies and Babe Ruth. I’m glad that building is still there though…that is a big time historical place.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Wow! Interesting post! I’ve heard her name but knew little ( virtually nothing) about her. Certainly a great voice. It’s mind-blowing that anyone was getting that much to perform in the ’20s, let alone a Black woman. According to Google, that would be around $30000 a week now. But then again, selling 780 000 records then was wild too…must have been bought by good pct. of homes with a phonograph.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Dave…Yea man that money amount surprised me…that might have been before Income Tax also…so it was all yours lol. Hell that is a great salary today.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I would love to hear more of the songs that she sang, as the titles are all fascinating. “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do,” “Careless Love Blues,” “Empty Bed Blues,” “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” and “Gimme a Pigfoot.”

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Great post, interesting we both mention Bessie Smith a couple days apart! Such a trail blazer and as you noted an inspiration to Janis Joplin and many others. So tragic that she died in car accident age 43. A great tribute song from the Band.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I forgot all about that song! Thanks for reminding me. Yea I’ve been listening to her in the last few days. Just an incredible voice and feel.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Bonnie Raitt was another who saw her as an inspiration. Bessie had a great voice that even comes through on the scratchy recordings from the ’20’s and ’30’s. Imagine what she would have sounded like on high-fidelity albums…

    Liked by 2 people

  6. What a voice! After I watched ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ a couple of years ago I listened to some blues artists of the time. Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Lucille Bogan… I was amazed by how dirty some of their songs were. The lyrics would raise eyebrows in 2023, let alone 1923…

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Max, I have a list that carries me almost through 2025, but I didn’t see her in there. I put her in for next March 15 and put the person who was in that slot at the end of the list I have going for 2025. THANK YOU! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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