In a powerful confluence of history, culture and color, poet and author Jackie Kay tells the story of the legendary American singer and songwriter Bessie Smith, known in her day as the Empress of the Blues. As an orphaned child, born in 1894 (or 1895; statistics about Black Americans were not considered important enough to make accurate), Smith sang for her supper on the street corners of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and then rose to fame as a teenager while singing and dancing in traveling Black minstrel shows. Blues singers like Ma Rainey, immortalized in her own right as the Mother of the Blues, helped Smith find her way in the Jim Crow South, and the popularity of Smith’s songs brought her stardom.
If Smith’s voice embodied the blues, her personal life illustrated them. Songs like “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” and “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” mirrored her own experiences. She drank, fought and had tempestuous affairs with men and women. She was a devoted adoptive mother, until she lost her child. Amid the abundant parties of the Harlem Renaissance, she refused to be patronized and once slugged the wife of one party’s white host. (She had tried to thank Smith with a kiss.) Smith’s husband, Jack Gee, stole her money, beat her and left her for a rival.
After 1929, Smith’s fame crashed like the country itself. Then, on her way to a comeback in 1937, she died a tragic death at the age of 43, and Gee stole the money raised for her headstone. Three decades later, Janis Joplin helped fund the stone and its inscription: “The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing.” Kay’s white adoptive father first introduced her to Smith’s vinyl recordings when, as a young girl in the Scotland village of Bishopbriggs, Kay was the only Black person. Smith’s raw voice drew Kay into the history of the blues and the American Black women who made it their own. In Bessie Smith: A Poet’s Biography of a Blues Legend, Kay entwines her own poetic voice with these women’s stories and music, and the result is a mesmerizing, fierce mix of sorrow and woe, love and lust, and—above all—resilience.