SHEPHERDSTOWN – Classic blues songs could be heard rolling out of the Morgan’s Grove Park pavilion on September 16, throughout History Alive! portrayal of Bessie Smith by Beckley-based actress and singer Doris Fields.
Run by the West Virginia Humanities Council, the free History Alive! The event was again, as in previous years, organized by the Friends of Shepherdstown Library, together with the Shepherdstown Community Club.
“This year, Living History! features a performance of Bessie Smith, a popular blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s. We’re thrilled to be able to offer this to the community! said FOSL member Patricia DiDonato.
Living History! The program features scholars from across the state, who portray historical figures, ranging from Pearl Buck to Nellie Bly. These living history performances provide a passport through time for student and adult audiences across the Mountain State.
According to the West Virginia Humanities Council website, History Alive! The program features a roster of 12 historical figures available each year for first-person portrayals. Previously, FOSL hosted History Alive! performances in Shepherdstown with performances by Charles Schulz, Mark Twain and Benjamin Franklin. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, no performances were held in Shepherdstown last year, and this year’s performance has changed typical venues, to address social distancing concerns. Usually, History Alive! performances are located inside the O’Hurley General Store.
Selecting Fields’ portrayal for this year’s performance was an easy choice, DiDonato said, as Smith, “the empress of the blues” was both the most popular blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s and the highest paid black performer of the time.
Fields herself knocked the house down with her performance, alternating between portraying her character through song and monologue. Some of the songs she performed from Smith’s repertoire, included “No-Gooder’s Dirty Blues” “Sometimes I feel like a child without a mother” and “Nobody knows you when you’re depressed and absent.” End the performance by singing “Wasted Life,” Fields herself received a standing ovation for her incredible performance.
“People have said all kinds of things about Bessie Smith. But people don’t know, to sing the blues, you have to live the blues.” Fields said. “I sing about people in prison and houses washed away by floods, about good men and good women.
“People like to call the blues ‘the devil’s music.’ I think it’s just because it speaks to them about themselves. Fields said. “The blues speaks true!”