Infidelity and Abandonment

Bessie Smith's life has been plagued by infidelity and abandonment. After being orphaned, Bessie's sister Viola, the primary care-giver of the family, was abandoned by her new baby's father. This no doubt had an impact on the family economy, as did Clarence Smith's departure in 1904. In her later years, Bessie Smith's marriage to Jack Gee was ruled by the infidelity of both parties. It finally ended when Bessie found that Jack was contributing money to a rival show and was registered at a hotel with the show's star, his mistress.

The infidelity and abandonment in her life and lyrics is not peculiar to Bessie Smith alone. This was a common theme in the blues. The frequency of infidelity and abandonment in the blues subculture is in direct relation to the economic situation facing blacks during the "Great Migration."

By the turn of the century black women outnumbered black men in urban centers, especially in the north. An article written by Kelly Miller was entitled "The Surplus Negro Woman." He extended Charlotte Perkins Gillman's argument for white surplus women, that basically stated surplus populations of women equal cheap women, across the color line. Miller called this the race problem and cited it as leading to moral degradation.

In cities like New York black women out numbered black men 124 to 100. This was due mainly to the instability of work for black men in the cities. Non rural employees mostly hired black men for construction projects and other temporary labor. Black women found more permanent jobs in the domestic industry - as servants and laundresses. By 1905, 90% of all black wage-earning women in New York City were domestics. This economic pattern forced families to lose fathers to migration and early death (due to dangerous working conditions), it also perpetuated a system of out of wedlock births and single mother families.

Another aspect of the "Great Migration," that lended force to this relaxation of commitment, is the anonymity of urban centers. In case studies, like Joanne Meyerowitz's, on the Chicago furnished room districts, it has been shown that away from the watchful eyes of parents and the village sexual mores are relaxed. The privacy of these rented rooms enabled young women and men to bring varied partners home with them after a night at the speakeasies or "rent parties."

There was of course opposition to this extra-marital sexual activity as is evident by the formation of the Young Women's Clubs Association. This sexual activity was very concentrated in the working class and blues subcultures. It fed the religious and moral condemnation of blues music.

For More Detailed Information:

Lesbianism in the Life of Bessie Smith Chris Albertson

Excerpts from: Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow Jacqueline Jones

Excerpts from: Sexual Geography and Gender Economy Joanne Meyerowitz

Surplus Negro Woman Kelly Miller


Down-Hearted Blues

'Taint Nobody's Biz-ness If I Do