February 8, 2021
As a black girl growing up in 1970s Glasgow, poet Jackie Kay developed a passion for Bessie Smith. In this extract from her new book, she remembers the wild spirit who helped her find her true self
I was adopted in 1961 and brought up in a suburban house in a suburban street in the north of Glasgow. A small, semi-detached Wimpey house. Outside our house is a cherry-blossom tree that is as old as me. It doesn’t seem the most likely place to be introduced to the blues, but then blues travel to wherever the blues lovers go. In my street and in the neighbouring streets to Brackenbrae Avenue, I never saw another black person. There was my brother and me. That was it. The butcher, the baker and the candlestick-maker were all white. (Although I never actually met a candlestick-maker – has anyone?)
So the first time I saw Bessie Smith, it really was like finding a friend. I saw her before I heard her. My father – a Scottish communist who loved the blues – bought me my first double album. I was 12. The album was called Bessie Smith: Any Woman’s Blues and produced by CBS Records ( John Hammond and Chris Albertson; Albertson went on to write her biography). I remember taking the album off him and poring over it, examining it for every detail. Her image on the cover captivated me. She looked so familiar. She looked like somebody I already knew in my heart of hearts. I stared at the image of her, trying to recall who it was she reminded me of.