‘She looked so sorrowful and so strong. She would stand up for herself, so she would. She wouldn’t take any insults from people. I could see from her eyes that she was a fighter.’
By Jackie Kay
Published by Faber
Bessie Smith performs ‘St. Louis Blues’ in the film St. Louis Blues. The only existing footage of Bessie Smith singing. Jackie Kay writes: ‘I remember the shock of the grainy monochrome image of my heroine appearing in this sad tale of woe. There she was, a tall, beautiful woman, driven to drink by her feckless lover.’
One of Bessie’s most iconic songs, ‘Nobody Knows When You’re Down and Out’, recorded as her first marriage was breaking down, and just months before the Wall Street Crash in 1929 that saw her career decline.
One of Jackie Kay’s favourites, ‘Dirty No-Gooder’s Blues’. Jackie Kay writes of first hearing it: ‘It sounded so bad. The very name made you think things you weren’t supposed to be thinking at that age.’
Another one of Jackie Kay’s favourites, ‘Kitchen Man’. Jackie Kay writes: ‘I was a bit nonplussed when I discovered that all those jelly rolls and sugar rolls in those songs had nothing to do with food.’
Bessie’s first hit record, ‘Downhearted Blues’, released in 1923. It sold 750, 000 copies in six months, making her a star.
The brilliant and audacious (and a favourite of BfS – the first Bessie Smith song we heard) ‘Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair’. Jackie Kay writes ‘The combination of the extraordinary plea with the graphically violent descriptions of the murder makes the song wildly funny. I can imagine women hearing it in 1927 and splitting their sides laughing.’
Let’s end our Bessie Smith playlist with one of her best party songs, ‘Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer’. Jackie Kay writes ‘The gutsy way she sings that “yeah” is like nobody else. She drags that yeah out of herself. She knew how to let herself go; didn’t give a damn what anyone thought of her.’
Bessie Smith by Jackie Kay is published by Faber, priced £9.99.
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