Date of Completion


Embargo Period



Fréhel, Bessie Smith, realist singer, classic blues singer, women in performance art, tiffany jackson

Major Advisor

Dr. Alain Frogley

Co-Major Advisor

Dr. Constance Rock

Associate Advisor

Dr. Ronald Squibbs

Field of Study



Doctor of Musical Arts

Open Access

Open Access


Fréhel and Bessie Smith: A Cross-Cultural Study of the French Realist Singer and the African American Classic Blues Singer

Tiffany Renée Jackson, DMA

In this dissertation, I explore parallels between the lives and careers of the chanson réaliste singer Fréhel (1891-1951), born Marguerite Boulc’h, and the classic blues singer Bessie Smith (1894-1937), and between the genres in which they worked. Both were tragic figures, whose struggles with love, abuse, and abandonment culminated in untimely ends that nevertheless did not overshadow their historical relevance. Drawing on literature in cultural studies and sociology that deals with feminism, race, and class, I compare the the two women’s formative environments and their subsequent biographical histories, their career trajectories, the societal hierarchies from which they emerged, and, finally, their significance for developments in women’s autonomy in wider society.

Chanson réaliste (realist song) was a French popular song category developed in the Parisian cabaret of the1880s and which attained its peak of wide dissemination and popularity from the 1920s through the 1940s. It portrayed the harsh realities of life for the urban poor, including prostitution, teenage pregnancy, alcoholism, and violence; the genre was dominated by working-class female singers, who often had direct personal knowledge of such matters, doubly marginalized as they were by low class and gender status. I draw parallels between the chanson réaliste and the American genre of ‘classic blues’, which came to prominence in the 1920s, dealt with similar subject matter, and which was dominated by women performers -- in this case African American, and thus victims of racial as well as gender and class prejudice. The scholarly literature has hitherto been largely silent on such parallels.

The dissertation is in four chapters. Chapter One explores the background of Parisian music and culture in the so-called ‘Belle Époque’ of the years between 1871 and 1914, and the early life of Fréhel. Chapter Two traces the emergence of the classic blues and Bessie Smith’s entry into its world. Chapter Three examines in detail the careers and performing styles of Fréhel and Smith, and the parallels between them. Chapter Four places these parallels in the broader context of the study of women in popular culture, and on the intersections of race and gender in this domain.