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LUNCH WITH BOOKS: History Alive! presents Bessie Smith

February 01, 2022
12:00pm - 1:00pm

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As the most popular female blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s, Smith was the highest-paid Black performer of her day. She was known as the “Empress of the Blues” by virtue of her forceful vocal delivery and command of the genre. In addition, she was an all-around entertainer who danced, acted and performed comedy routines with her touring company. She was a staple of the “Chitlin’ Circuit” and throughout the Jim Crow South, and many of her tunes have been covered by various artists through the decades. She visited Wheeling, infamously, in 1931.

The WV Humanities Council’s History Alive program provides first-person portrayals of historical figures by presenters who have conducted scholarly research on their character. Bessie Smith is portrayed for History Alive by Doris Fields of Beckley, WV.

Watch some excerpts from Doris's original stage play, "The Lady and the Empress," based on the life and music of Bessie Smith.


In addition to being in-person in the Library auditorium, this program will be available to watch live on Facebook Live, on YouTube, and on the OCPL website's LWB Livestream page Log into your Facebook or YouTube account during the program to leave questions for our presenters in the comments box. They will answer them during the live broadcast. 

Tuesday  |  February 1, 2022 at noon
LWB LIVESTREAM: History Alive! presents Bessie Smith

PRESENTER BIO: Doris A. Fields, also known as Lady D and “West Virginia’s First Lady of Soul” is an R&B, soul, and blues musician and songwriter living in Beckley. She is the founder and organizer of West Virginia’s Simply Jazz and Blues Festival and previously hosted the weekly Simply Jazz and Blues radio show on Groovy94 in Beckley. In 2008, Fields’ original song “Go Higher” won an online contest sponsored by the Obama Music Arts and Entertainment Group. She performed the song as a headliner at the Obama for Change Inauguration Ball with President Obama and the First Lady Michelle Obama in attendance.

FEATURED BOOK: Bessie, by Chris Albertson (Yale University Press, 2004)
[  Check out the ebook or the audiobook through Hoopla Digital with your OCPL library card  |  Purchase a copy online through to support local book stores or visit to find Bessie in a bookstore near you.  |  Purchase online through Amazon ]

book coverConsidered by many to be the greatest blues singer of all time, Bessie Smith was also a successful vaudeville entertainer who became the highest paid African-American performer of the roaring twenties. Chris Albertson writes with insight and candor about the singer’s personal life and her career, supplementing his historical research with dozens of interviews with her relatives, friends, and associates, in particular Ruby Walker Smith, a niece by marriage who toured with Bessie for over a decade. This book—a revised and expanded edition of the classic biography of this extraordinary artist—debunks many of the myths that have circulated since her untimely death in 1937 and also includes a few pages concerning her infamous Wheeling visit of 1931 (see below). 

FEATURED MUSIC: The Essential Bessie Smith (Sony, 1997)
[ Check these CDs out from the Library  |  View all Bessie Smith CDs at the Library  |  Listen to Bessie Smith online through HooplaDigital with your OCPL library card  ] 

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Following Sony's reissue of Bessie Smith's complete recordings, they pulled out three dozen of her most notable sides for this 2-CD set, including St. Louis Blues; Baby Won't You Please Come Home; Alexander's Ragtime Band; A Good Man Is Hard to Find; Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out and more. Check out these digitally remastered classics from the Empress of the Blues.

Bessie Smith was crowned the Empress of the Blues, and, while this moniker was well deserved, she was much more. A prolific recording artist, Smith was quite an eclectic performer. In fact, she may have been one of the first true crossover artists. This neat two-disc set gives the listener a good sampling of her wide repertoire. Smith is backed up by some of the best jazz musicians of her era. Her rendition of "St Louis Blues" for example, features the horn work of a young Louis Armstrong. Smith was not above doing such suggestive material as "Kitchen Man" or "Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl" and could breath new life into a pop chestnut like "Alexander's Ragtime Band." And when Smith sang "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," she knew what she was talking about. The title of this album says it all. 
—Lars Gandil

Lunch With Books Livestream starts at noon on Facebook and YouTube.

Subscribe to the Lunch With Books Youtube channel or like us on the Lunch With Books Facebook page or to receive notifications of our upcoming LWB broadcasts. To receive emails about our upcoming programs, visit our News page, click the "Subscribe" button to sign-up for our news blasts or download our free OCPL Connect app from your smartphone's app store. 

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"Lunch With Books" is the library’s flagship program for adult patrons. These lunchtime programs feature authors, poets, musicians, historians, and more every Tuesday at noon. Bring lunch (to the Library Auditorium or your computer), feed your brain!

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