Jimi Hendrix made a lasting impact on the rock music scene of the late 1960’s. He revolutionized the way key elements of the genre, like the electric guitar, were played but also how they were understood.1 Despite his short life and even shorter career, the impression he created on American music and culture is palpable even today. You can see him on t-shirts, skateboards, and every throwback playlist on Spotify. His voice, image, and identity are something people gravitated towards during the late ’60’s and early 70’s, just as they do now.
Trap Skateboard Company advertisement influenced by a famous Jimi Hendrix portrait
As a black man he stood out against his white peers, like Jim Morrison, The Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan. Many believe that his exceptional musical performances stood out because of the uniqueness as his position as a black man. Though there is a great amount of evidence to support this I contend that his significant musical abilities and his position as a powerful black man worked in tandem to elevate his position as an influential black musician. His race was something deeply rooted in his music and his career. Though he catered to mostly white audiences at his more popular venues, like Woodstock, he continually made attempts to perform to black audiences as well. 2 The pain and power that went into his music was also something that was deeply influenced by his identity and his experiences. His first songwriting success, “Stone Free” talks about breaking free of societal pressures, which for him would have included the oppression he faced due to racial prejudice and backlash.
Jimi Hendrix poster housed in the National Portrait Gallery
The elements of his music that stemmed from his personal life are what made his music so unique. The creative elements of his music encouraged freedom and persistence but, in contrast, the pressure of the music industry ended up being Hendrix’s tipping point. He died from side effects of his drug use.3 His influence in the music industry lives beyond him and he will forever be remembered as one of the most influential black musicians ever.
Though her rein took place during the 1920’s the “Empress of the Blues,” Bessie Smith, is still a household name.1 Blues queens, like Bessie Smith, had a huge impact on the music scene of the time but they also made considerable contributions to the cultural environment of the time. Their songs, often times characterized by their themes of love and loss, talked about the struggles of being a black woman and the consequences of the cross section between race, gender, and class. One example of this is Bessie Smith’s “A Good Man is Hard To Find” which talks about a cheating husband but also the difficulty of leaving a relationship due to outside forces.
The authenticity of the stories within blues queens’ music is something that has been continually questioned.2 The success of these women put them in the spotlight and made them someone to critique as well as a figure to look up to. This popularity is exhibited through the numerous radio spots, advertisements for sold out performances, and music endorsements, like the one below.3
“Chirpin’ the Blues” sheet music with endorsement by Bessie Smith
Though the music was the main event of a Blues queen’s career, if the authenticity of their music and the narrative surrounding them was questioned then they could lose support and ultimately those gigs would go away. This is not a singular issue, though, rather it is a societal issue rooted in sexism and racism. Bessie Smith is not exempt from this kind of critique.4 She was very rich and very famous, and sometimes its hard to think that a figure like that could experience things like cheating, addiction, or poverty. Bessie Smith was not exempt from critique but she was a much more complicated woman than met the eye. In “A Good Man is Hard to Find” Bessie Smith sings about a rather specific situation in which a man cheats on a woman and the woman wishes she could go back in time and fix the situation. Bessie Smith may, or may not have experienced this specific situation but she did experience love and loss, and could relate to the feelings exhibited in the song. Her parents passed away when she was very young and she supported herself by singing on street corners. She was married twice, the first marriage ending in the death of her husband and the second ending in a painful divorce.5 In Bessie Smith’s case, her music is a reflection of her experiences. There are a lot of scenarios in her songs that she may not have lived through but she experienced the kind of pain and loss that permeated many of them. Ultimately, bringing attention to these experiences and showing the resilience and ingenuity of women she should be lauded as a feminist and a positive role model.
1 Lordi, Emily J.. Black Resonance: Iconic Women Singers and African American Literature. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2013.
2 Suisman, David. “Was Bessie Smith a feminist?.” Souls, vol. 1 iss. 1, 1999.
3 Austin, Lovie adn Alberta Hunter. “Chripin’ the Blues.” New York: Jack Mills, Inc, 1923.
4 Blackwell, Amy Hackney. “Ma Rainey.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018.
5 “Bessie Smith.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018.