Tucker, Bessie (ca. 1906–1933)


By: David Ritchey

Type: Biography

Published: October 28, 2021

Updated: October 28, 2021


Bessie Tucker, blues singer and songwriter, daughter of Georgia (Connor) Tucker and John Chris Tucker, was probably born in East Texas about 1906. Her exact birthplace and date have not been adequately determined or documented. Greenville in Hunt County, Texas, and Rusk in Cherokee County, Texas, have both been suggested as probable birthplaces. Her death certificate listed her birthplace as Rusk (the birthplace recorded for both of her parents) and year of birth of 1907. The 1910 federal census recorded the family living in Hill County, where her father worked as a cook in a restaurant. Bessie was listed as age four and had two brothers.

Little is known about the life of Bessie Tucker beyond the few facts related to the music industry. Though she was slight in stature, her recordings reveal a powerfully dark voice. Tucker’s vocal style is best described as a folk variant on the field holler vocal music sung by African American slaves working in the fields and later by African American prisoners sentenced to forced labor. The field holler style is related to the call and response work songs prevalent among cotton and cornfield workers and on sugar and rice plantations. These vocalizations, from which early blues music was derived, served as an emotional outlet and expressed anguish and pent-up feelings. They also served a social purpose as well as represented a source of motivation in repetitive work.

In August 1928 Bessie Tucker recorded several songs for the Victor label in Memphis, Tennessee. These recordings represent some of the early recorded variations of the field holler vocal style. Pianist K. D. Johnson of Dallas, Texas, accompanied Tucker on piano. This recording session produced her best-known song, “Penitentiary.” Tucker participated in subsequent recording sessions in Dallas in August and October 1929. Her October session was again accompanied by K. D. Johnson on piano and by guitarist Jesse Thomas. Bessie Tucker is known to have recorded a total of twenty-four tracks. Seven of these were second takes of prior recordings. Discography of American Historical Recordings lists a total of eighteen songs recorded on the Victor label in 1928 and 1929. Her songs include “Bessie’s Moan,” “My Man has Quit Me,” “Got Cut All to Pieces,” and “Mean Old Jack Stropper Blues,” and her recorded legacy is available through the Document Records release of Bessie Tucker: Complete Recorded Works In Chronological Order, 1928–1929. Though hailed by researcher Max Haymes as “Queen of the Texas Moaners,” nothing else is definitively known of the life of Bessie Tucker. A lyrical examination of her discography has led to speculation by researchers that she spent time in prison, endured drug addiction, suffered from tuberculosis, and lived through a series of sometimes violent relationships.

The 1930 census recorded Tucker as living in her father’s household in Dallas, and her occupation was listed as “sales lady” for the Victrola industry. Only one photograph of Tucker has been identified. According to her death certificate, she died of pulmonary tuberculosis at Woodlawn Hospital in Dallas on January 6, 1933. The document stated place of burial as Woodland Cemetery but did not specify whether the graveyard was located in Dallas County. Some researchers have surmised that her burial site is in Woodland Cemetery in Red River County, Texas.

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Leslie M. Alexander and Walter C. Rucker, eds., Encyclopedia of African American History (Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2010). Discography of American Historical Recordings, Bessie Tucker (https://adp.library.ucsb.edu/index.php/mastertalent/detail/106904/Tucker_Bessie), accessed October 25, 2021. Bob Eagle and Eric S. LeBlanc, Blues: A Regional Experience (Santa Barbara, California: Praeger, 2013). Max Haymes, “‘Katy’s at the station. Santa Fe is in the yard’: On the rail trail of Bessie Tucker—Queen of the Texas Moaners.” Original Hobo Nickel Society (http://www.hobonickels.org/bessie.htm), accessed October 26, 2021. Roger Misiewicz, Bessie Tucker: Complete Recorded Works In Chronological Order, 1928–1929, 1991 liner notes (in part), Document Records (https://thedocumentrecordsstore.com/product/bessie-tucker/), accessed October 26, 2021.

Categories:
  • Music
  • Genres (Blues)
  • Peoples
  • African Americans
  • Women
Time Periods:
  • Texas in the 1920s
Places:
  • East Texas
  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Dallas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

David Ritchey, “Tucker, Bessie,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 28, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/tucker-bessie.

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October 28, 2021
October 28, 2021

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