Smith, Trixie 1895–1943
Trixie Smith 1895–1943
Blues singer, actress
Trixie Smith, one of several women blues singers who helped bring blues music into the mainstream, emerged from the vaudeville tradition during the “Classic Blues” era of the 1920s. There were several blues-singing Smiths at that time, all of whom were unrelated, and Trixie Smith, unlike Bessie, Clara, and Mamie Smith, attended college before she became a singer. Although Smith never became a big celebrity, her versatility and comic talent sustained her career as a performer after her recording career waned. Smith often recorded under the name of Trixie Smith and Her Down Home Syncopators. The Syncopators was a band headed by Fletcher Henderson and at one time, Louis Armstrong was a Syncopator member. She also recorded with a white band, called the Original Memphis Five.
Trixie Smith was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1895. Although there are few details available in regard Trixie’s early years and family life, it is thought that she attended Selma University in Selma, Alabama, before she began touring as a singer. Smith was part of the vaudeville circuit that traveled throughout the South, singing her own style of blues. In 1915, at the age of 20, Smith moved to New York City where she performed at the Lincoln Theater and often commuted to Philadelphia to perform at the New Standard Theater. Interestingly, Smith often performed “under cork,” or in the minstrel-style black face that was seen in many vaudeville shows. According to research conducted by Daphne Duval Harrison, author of Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s, Smith was considered to be, “a pleasing singer of humorous Negro songs, to which she imparted a trick of delivery that kept her in demand by the managers.”
Smith is representative of the southern African-American women who were on the move, looking to depart from the dreary and low paying jobs that were topical of the post-Reconstruction period, such as domestic jobs or sharecropping. As the African-American population shifted, moving into urban areas and to the north, the variety shows and vaudeville acts that were so popular in the rural areas of the south followed. Like many of the African-American performers during that time, Smith performed through the Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA), an organization that assembled and scheduled black variety shows, tent shows, and vaudeville shows throughout the South and the Midwest. The shows were extremely well attended and audiences began to request recordings of the popular singers.
Eventually, blues singers such as Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Sippie Wallace, to name a few, became big commodities. The recording industry opened its doors to more black artists, and black-owned theaters opened in many large northern cities such as Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, and Detroit. The black entertainment industry began to flourish, although the life of an African-American performer remained challenging and difficult. Performers, particularly those who were lesser known, were often ill-treated, but TOBA helped to keep performers consistently employed and on the move. Smith often had top billing and performed with several well known groups such as the comedy team Butterbeans and Susie and “Sweet Pease” Spivey.
Born Trixie Smith in 1895, in Atlanta, Georgia; died on September 21, 1943, in New York. Education: Selma University, Selma, Alabama.
Career: Vocalist. Recorded for Black Swan, Decca, and Paramount labels; performed on the TOBA circuit; appeared as vocalist in Moonlight Follies Review, 1927; New York Review, 1928; Highlights of Harlem Review, 1928; appeared in dramatic role in the shows, Lily White, 1928; The Constant Sinner, 1931; appeared in dramatic role in the films, The Black King, 1932; Drums O’Voodoo, 1934; Swing!, 1938.
Many blues singers often wrote their own music and lyrics, and by 1921, Smith had already recorded her song, “Trixie’s Blues,” for the Black Swan record label. In 1922 Smith performed “Trixie’s Blues” at the Manhattan Casino in New York for a contest that was attended by several well known socialites. Smith won the Silver Cup, a fact which she used to promote her career for its duration.
During the next few years, Smith, who also recorded under the names of Tessie Ames and Bessie Lee, recorded for several other labels. By the end of the 1920s, Smith’s recording career came to a halt like so many other women who sang the blues. Her last recording sessions were for Paramount in 1926 which included Blythe’s Washboard Ragamuffins. Smith kept her career going by performing with various vaudeville shows and revues including, the Moonlight Follies Revue, New York Revue, and Highlight of Harlem Revue.
In 1928, Smith found a non-singing role in the show, Lily White, and The Constant Sinner, which featured Mae West. Smith toured with Mae West for a short time and appeared with West in the film, The Black King, in 1932. Smith appeared in two other films, Drums O’ Voodoo in 1934 and Swing! (1938). After more than ten years, Trixie Smith returned to the recording studio in the late 1930s. These recordings, on the Decca label, which include her second version of “Freight Train Blues,” are considered her best. During this time she recorded with Sidney Bechet, Charlie Savers, and Sammy Price.
Smith is perhaps best known for her train songs, particularly “Freight Train Blues” and “Railroad Blues,” which aptly described the lives of the itinerant men and women of the Great Migration era (1913-1946). Like other blues greats, Smith was an inspiration to young African-American women who chose to develop their musical talents and to become self reliant and independent. It is interesting to note that her song, “Freight Train Blues,” inspired the painting by Rose Piper, Slow Down Freight Train. Trixie Smith died on September 21, 1943 in New York City, at the age of 48.
Cohn, Lawrence. Nothing But The Blues, Abbeville Press, 1993.
Harrison, Daphne Duvall. Black Pearls Rutgers University Press, 1987, p. 244-247.
—Christine Miner Minderovic
"Smith, Trixie 1895–1943." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 23, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/smith-trixie-1895-1943
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