If you’re looking for a "straight" biography of Bessie Smith, then Jackie Kay's Bessie Smith, published by Faber, is not for you.
Although Jackie Kay (Scotland’s maker, or poet laureate) has clearly done her research into Bessie Smith’s extraordinary life and gives credit to Chris Albertson’s definitive 1971 Bessie for much of the factual information she uses, this is not a conventional account of a life, but a semi-poetic description of the author’s identification and imagined relationship, with her subject.
Kay writes: “I don’t know what gave me the idea … to write about my life and write about her life together. How odd to try and do both at the same time.”
The book was written in the mid-90’s and first published in 1997, but has now been republished with a new introduction touching on Black Lives Matter, the Me Too movement, and the refugee crisis: as Kay notes, “Bessie’s blues are current.”
The fact that the author is a black woman who seems to have experienced a lonely childhood in Scotland (albeit in a loving white adoptive family) gives her an intensely personal relationship with her subject: having been given a CBS Bessie Smith double album by her communist adoptive dad in the early 70’s, Kay was first struck by the artwork: “I am the same colour as Bessie Smith … I’d look at her nose then I’d look at my own nose. Perhaps she is related after all.”
This is not a "straight" biography in another – important – sense: it puts Bessie’s sexuality and her physical relations with women (as well as men), at the centre of the story. Bessie’s bi-sexual voraciousness has been well documented and her own lyrics (“I’m always like a tiger, I’m ready to jump”) celebrate her appetites.
Nor does Kay shy away from Bessie’s alcoholism, extreme temper outbursts and predilection for physical violence (sometimes meted out to other women, especially real or imagined love rivals): but, she points out, Bessie’s willingness to resort to fisticuffs could be admirable, as it was when (legend has it) she single-handedly drove the Klu Klux Klan away from one of her shows in Concord, North Carolina in July 1927.
Throughout, Kay traces the history of other blueswomen, from the nineteenth century voodoo queens to the 1920’s “race records” of Ma Rainey, Clara Smith (no relation) and Victoria Spivey, when Bessie was making $2,000 per week and her Columbia recording of Downhearted Blues sold a record-breaking 780,000 copies in six months (but when the depression set in and her record sales declined to the hundreds, Columbia dropped her: Kay reckons Bessie foresaw this when she sang Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out).
There are also passages in which Kay imagines Bessie’s innermost thoughts, written in southern black vernacular. These are, in my opinion, the least successful elements of the book, but as they are italicised, the reader is made aware that these are the author’s imaginings and not intended to be taken literally.
One of these italicised passages, however, is important and relates to a true incident: in the late forties the jazz critic and promoter Rudi Blesh intended to write a biography of Bessie and made contact with her sisters Tinnie and Viola who told him they had a trunk full of photos, sheet music and letters that had belonged to Bessie. This treasure trove disappeared for ever because Bessie’s no-good bum of a husband Jack Gee claimed he had the rights to it and made typically unreasonable financial demands that Blesh could not (or would not) meet. Kay imagines the contents: unpublished lyrics, “ostrich plumes” and a lock of hair from Smith’s closest (and probably platonic) friend, Ruby Walker. There are also old costumes and “a giant pot of chicken stew, still steaming”, “a jar of Harlem night air” and the Tennessee River, with sheet music “made into tiny boats”. This is, of course, Kay the poet in full, fantastic flow, but telling an essentially true story.
Kay – perhaps surpringly – resists the temptation to simply repeat the widely believed myth that Bessie died because a white hospital refused her admission following a serious accident. What we know for sure (and Kay recounts this accurately, basing herself upon Chris Albertson’s research) is that on September 26, 1937 Bessie and her lover Richard Morgan were driving down Route 61 between Memphis and Clarksdale on the way to a show, when their car hit a truck and Bessie was very badly injured. The myth has it that she was turned away from a white hospital and died as a result.
Kay cites Albertson’s research which has convincingly debunked this story. Bessie was taken to the G.T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital in Clarksdale, where she died without regaining consciousness – although Kay, confusingly, then proceeds to cast doubt upon Albertson’s account, saying “my temptation is to hesitate”: perhaps, she implies, racism was a factor after all?
What is certainly a fact is that Bessie lay in an unmarked grave for thirty three years until 1970, when a couple of donations (one from Juanita Green of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a former cleaner of Bessie’s house, the other from singer Janis Joplin) purchased a headstone. Kay speculates that Bessie would have written a blues about this. By the way, the belated headstone is engraved: “The Greatest Blues Singer In The World Will Never Stop Singing”.
Kay’s book is not for everyone: some people will find it too political, some will recoil from its frank discussion of sex, and some will object to the elements of fantasy and poetic make-believe. For myself, I found it a gripping read and – perhaps most importantly – it drove me back to Bessie’s records, most of which (I realised, to my shame) I hadn’t listen to properly for decades.