Sunday, October 10, 2010

Book Notes: Bessie - Empress of The Blues by Chris Albertson

"Nobody Loves You (When You're Down & Out)" is a song I first heard many years ago - probably in the version by Derek and The Dominoes. Clapton subsequently revisited the song on his Unlpugged album, taking it to a new audience. While since the 60s this song had been so closely associated with Clapton, it properly belongs to a blues singer of a previous era, the great Bessie Smith.

Aside from her association with that song - and a vague recollection that her death might have been because of racism I knew very little about Bessie Smith - or the Blues scene of the 20s and 3os. However, I recently spotted a biography of Smith in a second bookshop, and read the eye-poppingly crazy life story of this legend.

Albertson's biography of Bessie Smith (despite its frequent self-adulation as the most important and well-researched book on her etc etc ), is not brilliantly written, and gets off to a tedious start in which a list of facts roughly hacked into prose is the supposed stuff of good biographical writing. By chapter four the reader is almost pleading for some of these facts to be interpreted, evaluated or set in their social context. Happily the book seems to shift gear about a third of the way through (I wondered if it was the same writer!), and becomes a far more convincing read.

The Smith who emerges from the book is as talented as she is wild, as committed to her performing as to the pursuit of pleasure. Ultimately she appears as a larger-than-life character who lived at the very extremes of any area of life she embraced. When it came to performances, she was never lacklustre or half-hearted, she sang the blues with fabulous phrasing and enormous power, her shows were legendary and she spent a huge proportion of her life on the road, giving her all. Likewise, she was no fan of constraint in any other of life, fighting, drinking, sex, men, women, - Bessie Smith seemed to attack life! There is a note of sadness that underpins this however - the picture that Alderson's eye-witnesses paint of Smith is of a restless spirit, a wrestless soul whose hedonism and excess masked an angst which perhaps only her singing could give voice to.

Alongside the main characters in the book, (Smith and sometime husband Jack Gee), the book does provide a nice thumbnail portrait of the world of the Black music scene in the inter-war years. In the middle of the Great Migration, these blues singers like Ma Rainey, Clara Smith and Bessie, took their tent tours throughout the segregated South, as well as playing major Northern venues. It describes the way in which the record industry worked and the TOBA tour circuit which took Black artists around the country. The image of the Bessie Smith company, with Bessie at the helm, Jack Gee coming and going, musicians and dancers - all aboard their own railroad car criss-crossing the country is a striking one. That railroad car was the scene of countless, absurd escapades, drunken fights, orgies, of all-manner of liaisons and complex love-triangles, and midnight escapes as the car was hitched to the nearest train to escape the next fight. The rockers of the 60s and 70s thought they were wild-men when they threw the odd TV out of a hotel-window. Most of them were tame - compared with Bessie!

The most marvellous scene in the book takes place when Bessie hears that the KKK, are about to let her tent down in the middle of a performance, as her national success they deemed inappropriate for someone of colour. The deep south in the 20s was not a place in which black people would normally not be extremely frightened by such a threat. Bessie however, marched out and screamed torrents of obscenities at the stunned and be-sheeted Klansmen until they dispersed in confused bewilderment!

Alderson's book also hints at the many contradictions in Bessie Smith's life. It seems that while sexual promiscuity might be the norm on a Friday night, and a drunken brawl on a Saturday night might be the norm. Come Sunday morning, Smith might equally march her troop to church - to sing to God, and Amen! a sermon espousing quite different values. Yet through all the complexity and confusion of her life, Smith used her great voice to lay-down some of the definitive blues recordings of the inter-war years.

Bessie Smith was indomitable. She wasn't just a woman, or a singer - she emerges by the end of the book as a force. It's tragic, that with a career reviving after the depression, and perhaps with some of her excesses tamed and some domestic stability emerging for the first time, she was killed in a car-crash outside Clarksdale, Miss. Alderson takes great pains to cast doubt on the traditional story that Smith died because she was refused blood at a whites-only hospital in segregated Mississippi. Instead, he interviews several witnesses who suggest that this couldn't be the case, as it is neither a likely cause of death given the nature of her injuries - or that the ambulance driver would have taken her there, when the hospital for 'coloureds' (sic) was so close by. Alderson's research rather points the finger of blame at the truck driver involved in the accident who abandoned her at the scene and drove on into Clarksdale.

Much of Bessie Smith's music has been saved for posterity - the record companies making more money in retrospective releases than the artist saw in a lifetime! Her fine voice, and the sheer power of her personality is stamped all over these tunes. Numbers such as "Nobody Loves You (when You're Down and Out)" can be heard freely on the internet too. Free music - Nobody knows when your down and out . Having read the biography - it feels as if seventy years later, and listening through the internet, I can listen to Bessie Smith at a safe distance. I certainly wouldn't have risked getting into a fight with her.

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