Bessie Smith: A skilful look at the blues singer’s life, loves and music
Jackie Kay tracks Smith’s path from blues to jazz and her tumultuous relationships
American blues and jazz vocalist Bessie Smith dances on stage in Philadelphia, in the early twentieth century. Photograph: Anthony Barboza/Getty Images
Anyone who knows the music of blues legend Bessie Smith will immediately recognise the poet Jackie Kay’s descriptions of its power, and how it feels to listen to that raunchy, passionate, tragic, fully alive voice. The songs feel, as Kay writes in her new biography, as though you are being “entrusted with a secret”. “You listen so hard she practically inhabits you; her very soul seems to find a way inside you.”
I first fell in love with Bessie Smith at university. I remember hearing that voice, by turns soft, then growling, then wailing, and being entranced. Online, I found a video of Smith, sitting on the floor by her bed, downing gin, singing to herself. “My man’s got a heart like a rock cast in the sea.” I felt like it was just me and her.