Growing up as an adopted child in a Glasgow suburb, poet and author Jackie Kay would sometimes forget she was black. Well, not forget, exactly. But, surrounded by white faces, she’d catch a glimpse of herself in a mirror and be shocked by her own reflection.
So when, on her 12th birthday, her dad gave her the double album, Any Woman’s Blues by 1920s diva Bessie Smith, she felt a jolt of recognition. “I think it’s the best present I have ever had,” she says. “The most exciting thing were the photographs on either side – two very different faces: one smiling, one sorrowful. I pored over those pictures because she seemed so familiar to me. Right away, I felt she had something to do with me.”
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It was the beginning of a lifelong love affair. Kay, who is Scotland’s Makar (or poet laureate), was obsessed with this complex black American – the “Empress of the Blues” – with her raw voice, her songs of love and hate, and her unbridled passions. On the road, Bessie drank to excess and had wild liaisons with both men and women.
To Kay, a budding lesbian in a homophobic society, Bessie offered the tantalising promise of sexual freedom. With hair brushes in lieu of microphones, she and her best friend Gillian spent hours imitating the singer in a box bedroom “thick with secrets”.
“It was a time of burgeoning sexuality when you are feeling all these new sensations and not knowing what to call them or what they mean and some of that can be quite scary,” Kay says. Gillian lent her a book about Bessie which described her travelling across the US in a Pullman. Kay pictured a Pullman as a wagon like the ones in The Grapes of Wrath, and day-dreamed of Bessie having sex with different women as it rattled along.
On February 18, Kay’s book on her idol – titled, simply, Bessie Smith – will be republished with a new introduction. When she wrote the original back in 1996, it garnered little attention. But 25 years on, with the MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements emboldening people to say ‘Enough’, her story feels contemporary, urgent even. “It’s an odd thing, but it feels like its moment is now,” Kay says.
Born dirt-poor in Chattanooga, Tennessee, around 1894 and orphaned by the age of eight, Bessie began singing on the street for nickels to feed herself and her siblings. Despite her obvious talent, she was ejected from Irvin C Miller’s chorus line for being too dark and turned down by a record company for being too coarse (legend has it she stopped singing to spit during the audition). Later – at the height of her fame, when hysterical crowds would gather outside her concerts – she single-handedly saw off members of the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina.
She also knocked over the wife of powerful, white journalist Carl Van Vechten at a party, because she felt she had been slighted. “Bessie was radical,” says Kay. “There she was, 100 years ago, saying ‘No’ to sexism, ‘No’ to dirty, no-good men, ‘No’ to racism, ‘No’ to being patronised by middle-class black and white people, ‘No’ to changing her voice and accent, and ‘Yes’ to staying working class.”
Kay’s book is written in a heightened, looping style which echoes the Blues, and is almost as much about her relationship with Bessie as it is about Bessie herself. It includes fictionalised passages which expand on her early reveries about Bessie’s life, and an alternative history where letters, photographs and notebooks, spirited away by the singer’s controlling ex-husband Jack Gee, are sent in a trunk to Scotland, allowing the poet to delve into its treasures.
Going with the imaginative flow, I ask Kay how she thinks Bessie would respond to finding out that, a century on, black men and women, like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, are still being slain by police officers? “She was never a bystander,” Kay says. “She would have got right in there. I mean we know she took on the Klan, so she would have been in the streets protesting.”
Bessie had many qualities, but she could also be manipulative and demanding. And she was full of contradictions. For all the lyrical lashings she meted out to ‘No-Good men’ she stayed with her own for seven years. When the couple finally split in 1929, Gee kidnapped their adopted son and put him into care.
At her peak, Bessie was a mega-star: the most popular and best paid of all the Blueswomen. Between 1923 and 1931, she recorded 160 songs with Columbia. She worked with Louis Armstrong and showered her friends and family with expensive gifts.
Yet, by the time she died in a car accident in 1937, Wall Street had crashed, the Blues was out of fashion and Bessie was poor again. Gee stole from her estate and from fundraising events held in her name, and she was buried in an unmarked grave. There she lay, unacknowledged until 1970, when Janis Joplin, who sometimes claimed to be Bessie reincarnated, helped pay for a headstone. Joplin – as reckless and chaotic as her musical forebear – died of an overdose months later.
Bessie’s experience resonates because we too are living in precarious times in which livelihoods are being lost overnight. “Her story has a Shakespearian arc and we all love a character that goes from poor to rich to poor again,” Kay says.
Kay’s own trajectory appears to be ever-upwards. Next month, her term as Makar will come to an end, but she will not be idle. She has a screenplay to write for Red Dust Road – her award-winning book about tracing her birth parents, which is being made into a film by Scottish producer Chris Young. And she has a novel to finish.
As for her Bessie Smith biography, Kay hopes it will prompt a new generation to fall head over heels in love with the Empress. And why wouldn’t they? In a world laid low by lies and disinformation, her music provides a powerful shot of authenticity. Whatever she was singing about, Bessie always told it exactly as it was.
Bessie Smith by Jackie Kay is out on February 18 (Faber, £9.99)