WHEN she was 12 years old, growing up in a small, semi-detached Wimpey house in Glasgow, Scots Makar Jackie Kay was given the album Bessie Smith: Any Woman’s Blues by her blues-loving dad. A double album, in fact, with Smith’s face on both sides.

“It was like a two-sided coin,” Kay recalls now. “The happy face and the sorrowful one. I just found the album cover fascinating.”

It was to spark a lifetime-long obsession with Smith and the music she made. “Hearing her voice and hearing those songs, I just got drawn into the world of those blues.”

Kay grew to adore the music as much as her dad. She still does. “I love the raunchy wildness of the blues. I love the fact that they don’t shy away from anything, from revenge to redemption.”

And Bessie Smith was her gateway drug.

Bessie Smith’s story is the story of 20th century America, Kay reckons. Or at least the first part of it. Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1894, Smith’s story encompasses the roaring twenties, the huge burst of energy that was the Harlem Renaissance, the Wall Street Crash, and the 1930s depression. For a while she was the richest black woman in America, rich enough to buy her own custom-built train carriage to travel around in, before seeing her success fade away. She was only 43 when she died in a car accident in 1937.

An inspiration for Janis Joplin, Smith was a self-made woman who sang raucous, raunchy blues songs, slept with men and women, and stood up to the Ku Klux Klan. And yet she married a man, Jack Gee, her second husband, who was controlling and violent towards her and continued to be controlling of her reputation after her death.

Kay herself grew up to be a poet and a writer. In 1997 she wrote a book about her favourite blues singer, one that celebrated her artistry and told the sometimes tragic story of her life. Published on a small independent imprint, only 1,000 copies were ever printed.

“I never got the feeling that it had been published. I never met anyone that had read it,” Kay admits.

Now, however, it’s about to be republished with a new introduction by Faber & Faber. Its time has come, Kay believes.

Read More: Jackie Kay on retaining hope in dark times

“It feels like it’s even more timely now with everything that has happened in the last year with Black Lives Matter.”

What was it about Bessie Smith that made such an impression on you?

I think she’s simply the best. I think all the blues singers at the time – Clara Smith, Ma Rainey, Ethel Waters – would have acknowledged that she was the queen of the blues; her tempo, her timing, her understanding of the blues. She wrote a lot of her own blues.

Ma Rainey taught her a lot of the ropes, but Bessie was technically, and in every which way, better than any of her contemporaries.

And I think Bessie’s life captures us. Alas, we all do love a tragic death. We all like to think, ‘What would have happened if someone had lived longer?’ From the Janis Joplins to the Bessie Smiths to the Amy Winehouses to the Robert Burns, we are constantly left with the question, ‘what if?’

And perhaps we carry them on in exchange for the life they didn’t live. Perhaps it’s a kind of bargain that humankind makes.

As a 12-year-old you wouldn’t have understood a lot of what Bessie Smith was singing about. Take a libidinous song like Kitchen Man, for example. When she sang about the kitchen man’s “jelly roll,” did you know what she meant?

I definitely didn’t. I just thought it was about an actual man bringing her nice things to eat. I imagined him with a big, tall chef’s hat on.

I loved the blues because they were completely outwith my ken. I didn’t know the kind of men she was writing about and I kept trying to equate them to my suburban neighbourhood, trying to work out which one was ‘no doggone good.’

You say in your book that as a young black girl living in Glasgow you concocted an imaginary black family for yourself and Bessie was part of it.

I did. I had quite a big extended black family. I kept adding different folk to it. Living or dead actually. Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela. Angela Davis. They would just be black people I found out about because there weren’t many black people on the television. I don’t even think Trevor McDonald was on then. The nurse in [the BBC soap opera] Angels was the only one I remember vividly.

And whenever there was a person of any colour on the television people would compare you to them. People would stop me in the street in Glasgow and ask me if I was on Angels, even though I was a completely different age.

Around Wimbledon time people would stop me and say, ‘Are you related to Evonne Goolagong?’ Or would sometimes even ask me if I was Evonne Goolagong. Which seemed really bizarre to me.

Going through Bishopbriggs Park people would shout Kunta Kinte because Roots was on the television then. I remember being obsessed with that whole series. But the idea that people would watch a programme that was all about racism and slavery and then take to calling you Kunta Kinte … I couldn’t quite get my head around that.

So, I made up this imaginary family as a sign of resistance, I suppose.

You love Bessie Smith for her authenticity, but she was very theatrical as well.

An old blues man on a porch in a filthy vest, that’s supposed to be the authentic blues. But the blues women would laugh at that. That’s an inauthentic image pretending to be authentic.

Bessie had a performer in her and liked her feathers and plumes, and often liked dressing up as a man. She often wore men’s suits and was a male impresario for some of her career. She felt like she could explore herself, her true self.

We make too easy a division between what we think of as costume and what we think of as real.

There’s the way that dressing up in costumes means you’re getting close to your imaginary self. I would argue that costume can be and is real. It opens up areas of exploration rather than closes them down.

When I go out and do gigs, I feel very much myself on the stage. In some ways I feel more myself onstage.

Travelling in your own train carriage is as theatrical as it gets, to be fair.

It was her brother Clarence’s idea. She was lucky that she was rich enough to be able to afford that. She was the richest black woman in America at that time.

I think she often cooked on her train – she was a really good cook – and she made special big southern stews that reminded her of back home. So, she was able to be completely herself.

She never changed her working-class self either. She never changed her speech patterns, or her behaviour, and that I find really fascinating.

She was working-class royalty, really. The blues queens were the closest you could get to a black royal family. But they did it in their own style with their own dresses, their own way of presenting themselves … Their own trains. They had so much autonomy.

The train also was a boon for her love life.

How cool. Who wouldn’t want their own love life on a moving train?

I think that’s what first attracted me to the idea of reading about her life. There was this book my friend gave me at 14 about this woman having sex with women and men and I remember finding that really fascinating.

It’s difficult to square the image of this self-made, self-possessed, successful woman who could face down the Klan with the woman who became so controlled and abused by her second husband Jack Gee.

Yes it is. And it’s soul-destroying to think about it in depth. Sometimes he just gets under my skin, that husband of hers. It’s despairing to think that a woman of that immense talent should have let herself be lumbered with this guy for all that time.

Bessie herself was violent and self-destructive. She was a bit like the Amy Winehouse of her day. And it was very frustrating for people who were close. All her friends and family at the time said that she changed massively [after meeting Gee]. They didn’t recognise her. Her spark had gone. It’s what you hear if you listen to radio phone-ins about domestic violence.

It’s an uncomfortable question to ask because people always focus on the woman. Why did she stay? But they don’t really focus on the question, why does a man behave like that? Which is a far more interesting question. A man who’s with this talented generous loving woman who buys him everything that he might need, who sends him off to spas when he gets a bit stressed, who is bought new cars. Why would a man like that want to throw her down the stairs and beat her up and terrorise everybody she works with?

That’s the question we should ask ourselves, but for some reason, no, we always ask about the woman.

What do you think is Bessie’s legacy?

Well, her legacy is her music. You can just find so much in those blues. There are more than 160 recorded songs. There’s lots to keep returning to. Finding the joy in them, the lightness in them, as well as the despair. Her legacy is her artistry because she was a real artist.

But, also, her legacy is of a kind of life that teaches us all a salutary lesson about what we should value. Because she had family who only liked her when she was rich. No well-known people came to her funeral. Yet thousands of ordinary people came. I think her life teaches us that lesson in a Shakespearean way.


Bessie Smith by Jackie Kay is published by Faber & Faber on Thursday, £9.99