Author: Matthew Keeler
Submitted to the Graduate College of Bowling Green
State University in partial fulfillment of
the requirements for the degree of
MASTER OF MUSIC
Bessie Smith: an American Icon from Three Perspectives examines biographies, literary studies, and black feminist writings about the quintessential blueswoman of the 1920s American recording industry. Problems have arisen from each group of scholars interpreting Smith’s contributions and importance to American culture differently, often at the expense of someone else’s viewpoint. Historically, biographers tried to dispel myths in order to determine the true events of Smith’s life, but dismissed the necessity of myth in shaping her legacy. Literary scholars analyzed Smith’s lyrics for deeper social meanings and contributions to literature, but overlooked her role as a performer. Black feminists acknowledged Smith as a model for strong African-American womanhood among the urban working-class, but neglected her innovations as a musician. All of these perspectives contribute to our overall understanding of Smith, but possess fundamental flaws. I have examined nearly fifty years of Bessie Smith scholarship, considering the socio-cultural backgrounds, time periods, genders, and research limitations of scholars representing these various groups. Ultimately, their biases compromise our understanding of Smith. To address this problem, future researchers need to look beyond individual histories to understand the reasoning and research processes that created them.
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