Reviews

Bessie Smith by Jackie Kay

cooksbooks's review against another edition

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informative reflective slow-paced

4.25

tallonrk1's review against another edition

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4.0

This is wonderful. An imaginative, poetic biography of blues-singing phenomenon Bessie Smith, but it's more than that. Kay's imagination and intimate writing here is vivid and engaging. And, it really rewrites what we consider "biography" and how we approach searching for queerness and recovering queerness from the archives. Genre-bending, time-bending, truth-bending, this is one hell of a (non)/fictional (auto)/biography. 8/10

rhythmvick's review against another edition

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5.0

'There is the perception, on the one hand, of the blues as lowlife (the view of middle class jazz fans and critics) and on the other hand, the blues as high life, royalty (for classic blues singers and their fans). This combination can't be bettered: the result is a Black working class queen'.

Such an interesting and moving short book, a book you could really feel. Particularly moving that this working class queer Black woman is profiled by a working class lesbian Black woman. This is the power of own voices - because I've read a fair few musical biographies in my time (of white people and people of colour, of straight and queer people) and they've never captured the meaningfulness of a contribution of an artist to the culture as this one did. Jackie Kay outlined both the meaning Bessie had to the Black community at the time, and the meaning Bessie had to Jackie growing up adopted in a white Scottish village. And by doing that she made the Empress come alive. A legacy that should be remembered forever; a keeper of Black history and legacy and longing.

The rage and tempest, the lack of impulse control, the generosity, the binges, the addiction. The chronic childhood trauma of early orphaning, and being raised by siblings. The mean men. The trauma of poverty and racism. A passionate heart and a pure gift. Rest well, Bessie Smith.

faeriehead's review against another edition

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informative reflective sad slow-paced

4.0

emcatbee's review against another edition

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informative reflective sad slow-paced

3.5


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sarahmoran27's review against another edition

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emotional informative reflective medium-paced

3.0

jacquiek11's review against another edition

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5.0

She tells us about Bessie's life and delves into her lyrics but she mostly tells us why Bessie is important to the world and to her.

'My life was changed by Bessie's blues. My soul was converted. Any good art transforms you, makes you ask yourself questions about the world you live in, people, laws, yourself. Any good art can change the way you look at yourself.'

Her life was incredibly dramatic and there is so much missing from what we know about her despite her fame. Partly because of the time and because there was so long before the first biography that much information was lost. Jackie Kay leans into this in the telling and imagines what is missing, in clearly indicated and very beautiful ventures into the version she imagines. In one she describes the contents of a lost trunk of Bessie's effects that have made their way safely to Scotland rather than being lost, among them are

'A bottle of bootleg liquor and a pint glass with a lipstick imprint of the lips of the Empress. A horsehair wig - shiny black hair that once long ago ran all the way down to the round shoulders of Bessie Smith. A strand of pearls and imitation rubies. A satin dress. Headgear that looks like a lampshade in someone's front room with lots of tassels hanging down. A plain dress with beaded fringed.......A reject selection of songs that were never released. A giant pot of chicken stew still steaming, its lid tilted to the side. '

It is a good read and her love pours through the pages and it sends you back to the songs.
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