As a young black girl growing up in Glasgow, Scotland, Jackie Kay first became enamored of the music of Bessie Smith. After publishing many books of poetry, becoming National Poet of Scotland, and writing both a memoir and an award-winning novel, Jackie Kay combined all these literary forms to create a unique and compelling literary biography of Bessie Smith (1894-1937). Kay believes that all of today’s problems and challenges were addressed in her blues. Smith was born into an impoverished family of nine in Chattanooga and began singing for spare change at the age of nine after the death of her father. At the age of 18, she began to join various traveling musical troupes, and when almost thirty garnered a Columbia Records deal that catapulted her into fame and acknowledgement as the “Empress of the Blues.” In 1930 she began touring the South again, this time with her own Bessie Smith Revue, until her death in a car crash in Mississippi in 1937. "A uniquely lyrical book by an exceptional writer about identity, racism, sexism, and the cultural life of a complicated, profoundly influential blueswoman.” —Booklist. “Eloquent and emotive. . . . 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 recognized her own blackness and queerness in Smith’s songs, her wild mythos and 'beautiful black face.'”—The Guardian. “Jackie shows an empathy unusual in a biographer, the writing being enhanced by the fact that its author is also a stellar poet. Biographies don’t usually bring the subject to life again. This one did. I finished the book then started it again immediately.” —Peggy Seeger.
New York: Vintage Books/Penguin Random House, a 2021 paperback edition of a 1997 British release. 224 pages with Notes, Selected Reading, and a Thumbnail Sketch. Trade paperback.