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Bessie Tucker: Complete Recorded Works 1928-1929 (Document DOCD-5070)


Her face looks away - in our (sole surviving) grainy shot...pulled from amidst an old Victor advertisement. She wears an odd bonnet - undoubtedly the height of black (Texas) fashion, in its day, and a thin, patterned dress. Fine-boned & light-skinned, she is the very pattern of a “high-yaller” gal, and yet...her eyes are strangely haunted - and her smile is tight-lipped & flat, w/only the upper teeth showing, whilst...we will never be able to meet her eyes.

This is the face of one Bessie Tucker, one of the greatest voices to descend to us from the 20s...and one all but forgotten.

I’d heard Bessie’s voice once, years earlier...before I got ahold of this set and, had mentally pictured her as lean, true - but also in her (ravaged) middle-age, despairingly reflecting on a life broken by savage male violence, prison, and - probably - prostitution. Arriving w/such baggage, the photo - albeit low-res - came as a shock.

This was a child/woman, who’d suffered through (much) more of life’s brutality - and, at a younger age - than most of us can even begin to imagine...

Because...most of her songs she wrote herself, as far as we can tell.

Try “Penitentiary”, for example. Bessie’s voice is narrower (although rich) than those of more celebrated singers such as Bessie Smith...but, as such, it cuts even closer to the bone - w/a nasal edge that seems to deliberately abrade the soul. Ornamentation is sparse & near-stereotypical...her vocals always hew close to certain expressive/melodic patterns - and yet, her voicings of same remain responsive to the individual line & accompaniment, albeit in subtle ways.

The result is an expressive classicism of grim despair, felt - simply - as the pattern of life itself...

Bessie’s was a voice we’ll never hear again...that of a beautiful girl - perhaps a street kid, or abused orphan - w/no hope & too many lifetimes’ experiences far too soon, and...brought up within a great oral/urban tradition, in full flower.

But...be warned - it is very difficult to listen to much Bessie Tucker at once. The spirit seems to shrivel, overtaken by a bleakness & resignation made even stronger for it’s untimely birth in one so young.

Great art, however, needs no apologies...




John Henry Calvinist