Alice Moore / St. Louis Bessie

St. Louis Women, Vol. 1 (1927-1929)

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In 1995, Document Records devoted two CDs to a pair of little-known, old-time female blues singers from St. Louis. Volume one begins with records cut in May and December 1927 by St. Louis Bessie, a mysterious woman who is believed to have also been known as Bessie Mae Smith, Bessie Martin, Mary Belle Smith, Mae Belle Miller, Blue Belle, and Streamline Mae. Whether or not these names were all attached to the same woman, the first 12 tracks on this compilation reveal a gutsy barrelhouse entertainer who concentrated almost exclusively upon lurid and tenebrous imagery, calling forth the clammy boa constrictor, the lizard who slips in through a keyhole; an anthropomorphic eel-like monster without fingers, toes, or proboscis; a creeping ghost, vicious bloodhounds, bad dreams of threatening floodwaters, jail cells, coffins and death. With subject matter like that kicking around in her songs, Bessie's temperament must have been just right for nine-string guitarist Big Joe Williams, a tough customer who claimed to have been her boyfriend. Her accompanists have been identified as pianists De Loise Searcy and Wesley Wallace, and guitarist Lonnie Johnson, who also played a mean violin.

As a composer and performer of blues songs, Alice Moore was a product of her environment. On her 1929 sessions she was accompanied by trombonist Ike Rodgers and pianist Henry Brown. Her singing tone was buzzing and bittersweet, suffused with warmth that was tempered by hard times and the hard boiled existence of a woman who survived by her wits and good looks. Her physical beauty enabled her to accomplish what economic necessity forced her to do as she worked in the dangerous and degrading environment of a St. Louis prostitute. Alice Moore was bracingly honest as she sang of cruel, opportunistic men and the stark reality of the holding tank, the government-run health clinic, the workhouse, and the prison cell. Drawing upon personal experience, she sang from the heart and made a point of giving advice to her listeners: "my friends, you let this world of crime alone." If these ancient Paramount platters convey some measure of Moore's amazing power to communicate, her Decca recordings from 1934-1937 (see St. Louis Women, Vol. 2) deliver her messages with even greater clarity and intensity.

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