Smith’s childhood in 1890s Tennessee began with a series of setbacks that most people don’t get over: Her parents were dead by the time she was 10, and she and her siblings were raised in Chattanooga by an aggrieved older sister. They nearly starved. For money, her sister took in laundry. Young Bessie sang on the street and at churches that sent for the child with the extraordinary voice.
By the age of nine, she had a following. By 16, she’d met blues great Ma Rainey and begun traveling with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, a touring variety show that played to rural populations of the South and Midwest. By 24, Smith had lit out as a solo act…