First published in 1997, now republished with a new introduction, Jackie Kay’s Bessie Smith unrolls less like a formal study of the singer and much more like a scrapbook-infused diary—starting with Kay, a Black girl adopted into a white Scottish family, and her discovery of an old double album, Bessie Smith: Any Woman’s Blues. It, and the artist who made it, gave her identity and validation, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that her outside world and family life contained nothing like Bessie Smith’s blues: the frankness, the aggression, confident and confidential on matters of sex, love, betrayal, violence, and even death.
Kay quotes several authors, including poets, but my mind went to one left out, the late and intrepid Ellen Willis. “I realized with a shock,” wrote Willis at one of her own epiphanies, “that although I’d listened to ‘Send Me to the ’Lectric Chair’ hundreds of times over the years, I had never really heard it before. It was a fierce, frightening song: A woman described how she had killed her lover, reeling off the brutally graphic details with almost casual defiance, saying in effect, ‘I lost my temper and I blew it and I’m sorry now but it’s too late so fuck it.’ Bessie had concentrated more intensity in that one song than Janis Joplin had achieved in her whole career.”
The singer acknowledges she’ll go to the “devil down below”; she’ll burn in hell for her crime, but she doesn’t want prison time, let alone bail. She doesn’t want to wait. She’s in a hurry to shake Satan’s hand. It’s the price to be paid for all those fine times, all those “Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer” times, but she faces doom as she faced rent parties and buffet parties, which might spill over into orgies from which, Kay notes, folks would sometimes have to run from police raiders, clad only in someone else’s drawers. Immediacy is key. Bessie Smith knew no way to drive but with the throttle stuck open.
The book runs through furious stream-of-consciousness courses, from the star and those who knew the star: whom she loved (family and friends), whom she took to bed (women and men), the violent and leeching second husband she couldn’t escape, the best friend she couldn’t bring herself to take to bed. A long cadence issues from her mouth, or at least her mind, as she lies, dying, on a roadside near Clarksdale, Mississippi, after her car smashes into a truck. We know about the car, the truck, and Clarksdale. Whether her life flashed before her, as in the book, no living soul can say. Quite possibly she knew nothing but the pain pushing down on her, mocking her at every broken breath.
But facts, sadly, break down where Bessie Smith is concerned. We print the legend because the legend is what we have to offer, in honor.