In the 21st century, if “the blues” has any face, it’s Robert Johnson’s, or, more typically, a Johnson-esque silhouette, dark and downtrodden: slumped, itinerant, devastated, male. He has usurped all the torture and torment, a fantastical incarnation of a fantasy. That, in the 1920s and ’30s, commercial artists like Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Bessie Smith were the dominant figures of the genre has become irrelevant to the myth of the blues as it’s been written by collectors and critics. Smith was phenomenally successful—a stout, outspoken black woman in a fur coat and pearls, stuffing theaters—and her success so directly contradicts a more romantic saga (the-blues-as-marginalized-cry) that she’s been nearly excised from its telling.
—Amanda Petrusich, writing in the Oxford American magazine about blues singer Bessie Smith, one of the most popular blues musicians of all time, an architect of the musical form, and the first to appear on Columbia Records’ “race series” in 1924. Petrusich’s piece ran in December, 2013.