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Faber presents Bessie Smith by Jackie Kay

A portrait of the tempestuous life of the pioneering and iconic blues singer by Scotland’s National Poet.


‘[Bessie Smith] showed me the air and taught me how to fill it … she’s the reason I started singing, really’ – Janis Joplin

Bessie Smith was born in Tennessee in 1894. Orphaned by the age of nine, she sang on street corners before becoming a big name in travelling shows. In 1923 she made her first recording for a new start-up called Columbia Records. It sold 780,000 copies, making her a star. Smith’s life was notoriously difficult: she drank pints of ‘bathtub gin’, got into violent fist fights, spent huge sums of money and had passionate love affairs with men and women. She once single-handedly fought off a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.

As a young black girl growing up in Glasgow, Jackie Kay found in Bessie someone with whom she could identify and who she could idolise. In this remarkable book Kay mixes biography, fiction, poetry and prose to create an enthralling account of an extraordinary life.

Editor Alexa von Hirschberg said: ‘Jackie Kay on Bessie Smith. Could there be a greater combination? Bessie Smith influenced artists from Bob Dylan to Mahalia Jackson to Billie Holiday and was the top-billed artist in the 1920s and 30s. Yet there are so few books about her. Jackie Kay’s evocation of Bessie’s life blew me away, and her story and her struggles take on a striking resonance today. I can’t wait to get this book into the hands of readers.’

Jackie Kay is a Scottish poet and novelist, and has been the National Poet of Scotland since 2016. She is the author of a number of works, including The Adoption Papers, Trumpet and Red Dust Road. The recipient of numerous prizes, she was also twice shortlisted for the Scottish Book of the Year Award. She is currently chancellor of the University of Salford, and divides her time between Glasgow and Manchester. Follow Jackie on Twitter @JackieKayPoet



Bessie Smith by Jackie Kay will be published by Faber on 18 February 2021.