April 15th Ought to Be a National Holiday

Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith was born on this date in 1894.

Bessie Smith earned the title of “Empress of the Blues” by virtue of her forceful vocal delivery and command of the genre. Her singing displayed a soulfully phrased, boldly delivered and nearly definitive grasp of the blues. In addition, she was an all-around entertainer who danced, acted and performed comedy routines with her touring company. She was the highest-paid black performer of her day and arguably reached a level of success greater than that of any African-American entertainer before her. – See more at: http://www.rockhall.com/inductees/bessie-smith/bio/#sthash.jw6UNMwz.dpuf

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Some of her better-known sides from the Twenties include “Backwater Blues,” “Taint Nobody’s Bizness If I Do,” “St. Louis Blues” (recorded with Louis Armstrong), and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” The Depression dealt her career a blow, but Smith changed with the times by adapting a more up-to-date look and revised repertoire that incorporated Tin Pan Alley tunes like “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” On the verge of the Swing Era, Smith died from injuries sustained in an automobile accident outside Clarksdale, Mississippi, in September 1937. She left behind a rich, influential legacy of 160 recordings cut between 1923 and 1933. Some of the great vocal divas who owe a debt to Smith include Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin. In Joplin’s own words of tribute, “She showed me the air and taught me how to fill it.”

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

And this from a review of The Essential Bessie Smith.

Bessie could sing it all, from the lowdown moan of “St. Louis Blues” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” to her torch treatment of the jazz standard “After You’ve Gone” to the downright salaciousness of “Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl.” Covering a time span from her first recordings in 1923 to her final session in 1933, this is the perfect entry-level set to go with. Utilizing the latest in remastering technology, these recordings have never sounded quite this clear and full, and the selection — collecting her best-known sides and collaborations with jazz giants like Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, and Benny Goodman — is first-rate. If you’ve never experienced the genius of Bessie Smith, pick this one up and prepare yourself to be devastated.


There are no lyrics today that surpass “Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl” for sexual imagery.

And, there is no more important recording in American musical history than Smith and Armstrong’s “St. Louis Blues.”

In listening to the earliest recordings, keep in mind there were no microphones until 1925. The artists sang or played and the sound was recorded acoustically, i.e., without electrical amplification.

And Thomas Hart Benton was born on this date in 1889.

Trail Riders

Named after his great-uncle, Missouri’s first senator, Thomas Hart Benton was born on 15 April 1889 in Neosho, Missouri, an Ozark town of 2,000 people. … In 1935 they moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where Benton directed the Art Institute until 1941, and where he contiued to live for the rest of his life. Albert Barnes, the Philadelphia collector, purchased some of his paintings, which raised the level of public success for the artist. Benton published his autobiography, An Artist in America, in 1937. He completed several murals in the midwest and on the east coast. Shortly before Harry Truman’s death in December 1972, Benton finished a portrait of the former President. Thomas Hart Benton died on 19 January 1975 in Kansas City, the day he completed a large mural for the Country Music Foundation of Nashville.

National Gallery of Art

Emma the Actress Day

April 15th is the birthday of Emma Thompson and of Emma Charlotte Duerre Watson. The actresses are 55 and 24.

Emma Thompson has been nominated four times for an acting Oscar, winning best actress in a leading role for Howards End. She also won the screen adaptation Oscar for Sense and Sensibility. She’s delightful as Nanny McPhee. And I thought she was superb in Saving Mr. Banks.

Emma Watson is known primarily for just one character so far in her acting career, that of Hermione Granger.

The Pulitzer Prizes

The Pulitzer Prizes

Winners for Books, Drama and Music, 2013:

FICTION – “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown)

DRAMA – “The Flick” by Annie Baker

HISTORY – “The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832″ by Alan Taylor (W.W. Norton)

BIOGRAPHY – “Margaret Fuller: A New American Life” by Megan Marshall (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

POETRY – “3 Sections” by Vijay Seshadri (Graywolf Press)

GENERAL NONFICTION – “Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation” by Dan Fagin (Bantam Books)

MUSIC – “Become Ocean” by John Luther Adams (Taiga Press/Theodore Front Musical Literature)

Click link above for Journalism award winners.


RMS Titanic hit an iceberg at 11:40 PM (Titanic time) on this date in 1912. She was at 41° 46′ north latitude, 50° 14′ west longitude in the Atlantic. The ship went under at 2:20 AM on the 15th.

Click image of the Times to read news story.

Click image of the Times to read news story.

Good Friday 1865

Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth on this date in 1865. Lincoln died the next morning.

As Atzerodt and Paine fanned out to seek their targets, Booth, a celebrated actor, familiar to everybody who worked at Ford’s Theatre, had no trouble in slipping upstairs during the performance of Our American Cousin. Moving quietly down the aisle behind the dress circle, he stood for a few moments near the President’s box. A member of the audience, seeing him there, thought him “the handsomest man I had ever seen.” John Parker, the Metropolitan policeman assigned to protect the President, had left his post in the passageway, and the box was guarded only by Charles Forbes, a White House footman. When Booth showed Forbes his calling card, he was admitted to the presidential box. Barring the door behind him, so as not to be disturbed, he noiselessly moved behind Lincoln, who was leaning forward, with his chin in his right hand and his arm on the balustrade. At a distance of about two feet, the actor pointed his derringer at the back of the President’s head on the left side and pulled the trigger. It was about 10:13 P.M.

When Major Rathbone tried to seize the intruder, Booth lunged at him with his razor-sharp hunting knife, which had a 7¼-inch blade. “The Knife,” Clara Harris reported, “went from the elbow nearly to the shoulder, inside, — cutting an artery, nerves and veins — he bled so profusely as to make him very weak.” Shoving his victim aside, Booth placed his hands on the balustrade and vaulted toward the stage. It was an easy leap for the gymnastic actor, but the spur on his heel caught in the flags decorating the box and he fell heavily on one foot, breaking the bone just above the ankle. Waving his dagger, he shouted in a loud, melodramatic voice: “Sic semper tyrannis” (“Thus always to tyrants” — the motto of the state of Virginia). Some in the audience thought he added, “The South is avenged.” Quickly he limped across the stage, with what one witness called “a motion…like the hopping of a bull frog,” and made his escape through the rear of the theater.

Up to this point the audience was not sure what had happened. Perhaps most thought the whole disturbance was part of the play. But as the blue-white smoke from the pistol drifted out of the presidential box, Mary Lincoln gave a heart-rending shriek and screamed, “They have shot the President! They have shot the President!”

From David Herbert Donald’s outstanding biography of Lincoln.

Read The New York Times story from the day after the assassination, headlined Awful Event.

Click for larger version.

Click for larger version.

On April 26, Booth and co-conspirator David Herold were surrounded while hiding in a tobacco shed in Port Royal, Virginia. Herold surrendered to Union troops, but Booth held out and was shot while the shed burned down around him.

Photo at top is from a Library of Congress exhibit showing the content of Lincoln’s pockets that evening plus a newspaper report of the assassination. Click image for larger version.



Black Sunday

It was 79 years ago today that the largest of the dust storms of the 1930s swept the western plains (April 14, 1935).


Cyclic winds rolled up two miles high, stretched out a hundred miles and moved faster than 50 miles an hour. These storms destroyed vast areas of the Great Plains farmland. The methods of fighting the dust were as many and varied as were the means of finding a way to get something to eat and wear. Every possible crack was plugged, sheets were placed over windows and blankets were hung behind doors. Often the places were so tightly plugged against the dust (which still managed to get in) that the houses became extremely hot and stuffy.

Quotation from the Cimmaron Heritage Center, Boise City, Oklahoma. Boise City is in the Oklahoma panhandle near Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas and Texas.

Those on the road had to try to beat the storm home. Some, like Ed and Ada Phillips of Boise City, and their six-year-old daughter, had to stop on their way to seek shelter in an abandoned adobe hut. There they joined ten other people already huddled in the two-room ruin, sitting for four hours in the dark, fearing that they would be smothered. Cattle dealer Raymond Ellsaesser tells how he almost lost his wife when her car was shorted out by electricity and she decided to walk the three-quarters of a mile home. As her daughter ran ahead to get help, Ellsaesser’s wife wandered off the road in the blinding dust. The moving headlights of her husband’s truck, visible as he frantically drove back and forth along the road, eventually led her back

The American Experience

. . . And the old house was just a-vibratin’ like it was gonna blow away. And I started tryin’ to see my hand. And I kept bringin’ my hand up closer and closer and closer and closer and closer and I finally touched the end of my nose and I still couldn’t see my hand. That’s how black it was. And we burned kerosene lamps and Dad lit an old kerosene lamp, set it on the kitchen table and it was just across the room from me, about — about 14 feet. And I could just barely see that lamp flame across the room. That’s how dark it was and it was six o’clock in the afternoon. It was the 14th of April, 1935. The sun was still up, but it was totally black and that was blackest, worst dust storm, sand storm we had durin’ the whole time.

A lot of people died. A lot of children, especially, died of dust pneumonia. They’d take little kids and cover ‘em with sheets and sprinkle water on the sheets to filter the dust out. . . .

Melt White, The American Experience

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan is a history of the Dust Bowl that won the National Book Award. It is outstanding.