Bessie Smith by Jackie Kay review – a potent blues brew

<span>Photograph: Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy

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”.

Kay’s beloved adoptive parents were white Scottish communists who loved the blues and jazz. The music they gifted the young Jackie resonated deeply and in myriad ways, making her feel “intimately known”.

This timely republication of Bessie Smith, with a new introduction extolling hercontinued relevance, charts some of the distance travelled both by the publishing industry and by Kay herself, now Scotland’s makar, or poet laureate. Time hasn’t dimmed the book’s restlessly creative scholarship. Mixing academic rigour, authorial autobiography and poetic licence, this slim text’s selected bibliography runs to 22 titles. Throughout, Kay traces the heyday of the blueswomen, from the voodoo queens to the era of wax and “race records”, where copyright was still in the future and royalties optional.

Smith was proud and cowed, generous and reckless, a violent drunk brutalised by an abusive husband

In an echo of Chuck D’s famous dictum that hip-hop was “black people’s CNN”, the blues recorded an alternative history of racist acts, of poverty and injustice, but also of obvious sexual innuendo – all those jelly rolls – and high times. After the Great Depression, the blues changed and moved north, but in the 1920s and before, blueswomen like Smith were southern party-bringers, dressed to the nines; the theatrics of the touring troupes powered by a sense of occasion and illicit hooch. Although Smith was successful enough to own her own train carriage, her darker skin cost her a place in more than one show; and Black Swan, the first black-owned record label, found her too unrefined.

If Smith’s songs told the young Kay a “secret story” about female suffering, the even less public tale was that of same-sex relationships. Kay’s account also tells a queer herstory, of sexually voracious, highly solvent female performers like Smith and Ma Rainey (the subject of a recent biopic) and of the “buffet flats” where wild, licentious parties allowed participants the freedom to be wholly themselves.

Related: Jackie Kay on Bessie Smith: 'My libidinous, raunchy, fearless blueswoman'

Contradictions abound in a book in which emotional truth plays off against historical fact, and Kay imagines how things might have been. Although Smith’s material spans myriad subject matters, the majority of the songs associated with this celebrated queer figurehead are about loving men, Kay points out. Smith was proud and cowed, generous and reckless, a violent drunk who was brutalised by an abusive husband she could not seem to leave. She was in a long relationship with a close female confidante with whom she might not ever have had sex.

The text is littered with questions. There are also passages in which Kay imagines the blues singer’s most intimate thoughts, or takes a poetic view, imagining what was never – could not have been – recorded. It is a delicate tightrope to walk in a historical moment in which a war between fact and conjecture is raging. But Kay’s purpose in 1997 was to sift out intimate emotional truths from the drier historical record, a process familiar from any rock star biopic or fictional allegory.

Sometimes, these italicised passages sit a little awkwardly, never more so than when Kay attempts to write in the southern black vernacular. Others are exhilarating. One, nearly midway through this Tardis-like book, imagines the contents of a real trunk – the Smith biographer’s holy grail – in which Smith stored her most treasured possessions. Kay enumerates its contents: unpublished lyrics, “ostrich plumes” and a lock of hair from Smith’s right-hand woman, Ruby Walker. But among the letters and old costumes Kay places “a giant pot of chicken stew, still steaming, its lid tilted to the side”, “a jar of Harlem night air” and the Tennessee River, with blues sheet music “made into tiny boats”. The lyricism makes a concertina of time and space, the swirl of artefacts – hard evidence, and monuments to feeling – mounting to a heady crescendo.

Bessie Smith by Jackie Kay is published by Faber (£9.99). To order a copy go to Delivery charges may apply