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The Traditional Delta and Country Blues

Bessie Tucker

Bessie Tucker was a classic female blues, country blues, and Texas blues singer and songwriter, active 1928–1929. Her best-known songs are "Penitentiary" and "Fryin' Pan Skillet Blues". Little is known of her life outside the music industry. She is known to have recorded just twenty-four tracks, seven of which were alternate takes.

Tucker hailed from East Texas. References in her songs led the researcher Max Haymes to speculate that she may have been based in Greenville. She had a light complexion and a small frame but was said to be "a strong singer with a dark voice". In August 1928, she recorded a number of songs, most of which she wrote, for the Victor label in Memphis, Tennessee. She was accompanied on piano by the Dallas-born K.D. Johnson. This recording session yielded her best-known song, "Penitentiary". The subject of the song was reputedly not unknown to Tucker. A second session in Dallas followed in October 1929, at which she was again accompanied by Johnson and by the guitarist Jesse Thomas. After this, nothing more is known of her life. Only one photograph of Tucker is known. In 1960, the Dallas pianist Whistlin' Alex Moore told an interviewer that Tucker and Ida May Mack, who had shared the 1928 recording session with Tucker, were both "tough cookies ... don't mess with them". However, in a 1972 conversation, the pianist was unable to recall the name of either singer, leading the interviewer to suspect that he had drawn his own conclusions from their recordings. Music buffs can only affirm that Tucker sang in the same style as the Texas singers Texas Alexander, Victoria Spivey and Texas Bill Day and that her lyrics refer to railroads that served East Texas and Dallas. Some of Tucker's tracks and those of Mack are available on a compilation album. All of her recordings have been issued by Document Records. She was not related to the singer Sophie Tucker.


by Jason Ankeny
Very little is known of the classic blues belter Bessie Tucker, a product of the folk and field holler vocal traditions of her native East Texas region. A woman whose petite frame belied the earthy power of her voice, her legend is largely founded on a bawdy 1928 Memphis session for the Victor label on which she was accompanied by pianist K.D. Johnson; the date yielded her best-known track, "Penitentiary" (sung in honor of an institution to which she was reportedly no stranger). A 1929 date followed, at which time Tucker disappeared from performing, apparently for good; no data exists on the later events of her life.