Bessie Smith by Jackie Kay

There’s a fairy-tale quality to the most famous anecdotes about Bessie Smith, the orphan who sang for street-corner nickels before transforming herself into the “Empress of the Blues”. One legend insists that, aged 17, she was asleep in bed when the blues matriarch Ma Rainey crept in and threw her in a burlap sack, spiriting her away into her traveling revue.

Later, in North Carolina, Smith single-handedly chased away a pack of Klansmen who were loosening the tent poles over her stage. “You just pick up those sheets and run,” she bellowed, and they did. Her live shows generated magic, her uninsulated voice plugging audiences straight into the pain of love, poverty, sickness and survival. “She could bring about mass hypnotism,” the jazz guitarist Danny Barker recalled.

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