Where are the Blues?

Give Me A Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer! It is this kind of song that Bessie Smith would sing to an intoxicated crowd. One could hear this song for the price of anywhere from a dime to a half-dollar. After admission, their was dancing and bootleg liquor sold out of the kitchen. One could probably also find, pigs feet, ham hock and the like. This type of party, "rent parties" migrated north with the new residents of Harlem. They were parties used to raise the rent usually due the next day.

Another type of establishment that Bessie Smith herself would frequent, were "buffet flats." These were also private apartments. At these apartments rooms would be rented out by the night. They were established during the late 1800s to provide overnight accommodations for blacks that were refused admission to white-owned hotels. Into the 1920s these "buffet flats" became after-hours hot spots which housed gambling, prostitution, drinking and a colorful array sexual tastes and entertainment.

Bessie Smith performed the majority of her time for a predominantly black audience. Aside from these more private parties, she would perform at speakeasies sometimes called "lap joints." These three types of places catered to the "low" Harlem social scene, the working class Harlem population.

Bessie Smith seemed to prefer touring, around the middle of the decade she even purchased her own railroad car to improve the conditions of her troupes travel and to avoid Jim Crow laws in the south. Other circuits she traveled, like the Theatre Owners Booking Association, could not even provide hot and cold water, not to mention other standards.

A'Leila Walker, the sole daughter of Madame C.J. Walker, a laundress who made a fortune on hair straightening products, threw lavish parties. These parties where held at her Harlem residence as well as her Hudson River estate, Villa Lewaro. They catered to an interracial and sexually fluid crowd. Bessie Smith performed (sometimes antagonistically) and attended these parties along with Carl Van Vechten and other Harlem socialites.

Although the blues culture provided space for interracial socializing it also provided space for racial segregation. Mafia owned clubs along "Jungle Alley" (a strip of 133rd St. between Lenox and Seventh Ave.), like the Cotton Club, Small's Paradise and Connie's Inn, catered to an exclusively white clientele. Performers at these clubs, especially women were young and "high yellow," light skinned. Unlike the "rent parties" and "buffet flats," the performers did not ever socialize with the audience. Bessie Smith did not perform at these clubs, it was not "her people," and she was "too black" to be accepted there.

For More Detailed Information:

A Spectacle in Color Eric Garber

Excerpts from: The Harlem Renaissance Steven Watson

Jailhouse Blues