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Thursday, 19 March 2015

Nobody reads Bessie Smith when they're down and out

Like a lot of my reading "decisions", I picked up Elaine Feinstein's Bessie Smith for the very good reason that ... er, I'd forgotten to take a book with me to read during my few days in Italy. Downtime, and all that. I didn't even know I had this book. Is it even mine?! 

It's a curious little thing, a super-slender monograph from a poet who probably writes slim volumes of verse. Rather too much of a hagiography for my liking, and also rather too keen on the "she must have been thinking THIS when THIS happened" school of psychological theorising, it's still an enjoyable romp through Smith's tumultuous life. 

It's strongest on Smith's relationships, and altogether lightweight on the actual music (which is mostly seen as a lyrics-based reflection of what she's experiencing in her personal life). That said, one of the best bits in the book is the comment ("infinitely touching") about Smith's Hmmmm-ing on Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out. It's these off-centre, extra-vocalisations that I think often lift blues singing into a special domain (as do some of the weird grunts and vocal ejaculations in reggae and dub). Similarly, I like the way Smith sings "millyunair" for "millionaire" at the beginning of this bitter song and also uses the black American "you" in "Nobody knows you when you down and out". Plus, of course, there's her fantastic growling on several parts of this excellent song.

Anyway, what do I think of Feinstein's book? Ahh, uggh, hmmm, aaah, ugh!

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