Bessie Smith by Jackie Kay review – a potent blues brew

This welcome reissue of the poet’s 1997 book about the ‘empress of the blues’ combines fact, personal memory and poetry to create an eloquent ‘herstory’

Blueswoman Bessie Smith was a complex character, a self-made superstar whose biography is often stranger than fiction. Her deeds became the stuff of legend. Smith was formidable, reputedly facing down single-handedly an attempt by the Ku Klux Klan to burn down her show tent. But Smith sang of female suffering and lived out the tragedies of her songs, often in reverse order. Jackie Kay, author of this eloquent and emotive biography, underlines how frequently Smith wrote lyrics with terrible prescience.

Originally published in 1997, Kay’s biography was a joyous and formally daring undertaking. Then, it formed part of a series called Outlines, which sought to document “an unofficial, candid and entertaining short history of lesbian and gay art, life and sex”. Now, a Spice Girls reference dates it only momentarily: Bessie Smith remains an act of intimate witnessing, a biography about a black, bisexual, working-class American artist by a celebrated Scottish poet who first recognised her own blackness and queerness in Smith’s songs, her wild mythos and “beautiful black face”.

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