Bessie Smith was called the “Empress of the Blues,” famed for her ability to be both regal and sensual in song and style. She was also the highest paid African American entertainer of her generation from her early days performing on Chattanooga street corners and her travels on the black vaudeville circuit to her decade as a top selling recording artist touring in her own railroad car. We hear about Bessie Smith from artists who knew her personally as well as an historian and anthropologist who has studied her life and performances. Also, Bessie Smith songs from Alberta Hunter, Dinah Washington, Nina Simone and Catherine Russell; and a conversation with Annika Chambers, a 21st century blueswoman.
Photo by Carl Van Vechten, restored by Adam Cuerden
We peer into the minds of musical dreamers of the past and present, exploring dreams of love, immigration, and a more perfect union. Singer songmaker Jesse Colin Young of the Youngbloods speaks of the 60’s folk revival in Greenwich Village and his dreams realized in the anthemic 1967 song “Get Together.” Then, Haitian American cellist and singer Leyla McCalla describes her journey from New York to New Orleans, connecting the cultural histories she’d long dreamed of along the way. Plus dreamscapes from Rhiannon Giddens, Los Cenzontles, Mahalia Jackson and John Prine.
The Mississippi River has produced great cultural icons in jazz, blues, gospel, rockabilly, roots rock and soul and many other music styles near its banks and levees. Join us for “Down by the Riverside” a live American Routes concert with artists from the cafe au lait portion of the river and its connected watershed of bayous and backswamps in South Louisiana, including Michael and David Doucet, retired captain of the Natchez steamboat, Clarke “Doc” Hawley and Dr. Michael White and band playing New Orleans traditional jazz, joined by singer Topsy Chapman.
We’re on the road again, dialed into high-flying honky-tonk as we cruise through Texas cotton patches and Midwestern pastures of plenty. Starting off in Illinois farm country, we meet up with Margo Price, who followed her dreams of songwriting to Nashville, Tennessee. She put her name on the map with songs about growing up in rural America, and has since dug in her heels while singing about a landscape of gender and economic inequities. Then, we look in the rear view mirror to our 2000 in-studio performance and interview with Willie Nelson, who reminisces about his hometown of Abbott, Texas, and the “opera of voices” he heard in its fields. Plus, songs from Muhlenberg County, Butcher Hollow, New Orleans’ 9th Ward, Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska and Hendrix’s Both Sides of the Sky.