6. Oxford American: Everybody Knows When You are Down and Out
Whenever I write about anything that addresses music I always have to listen to the music that’s spoken of. Writing about this one took me longer, and took me out of myself, more than I expected as it required me to spend time with Bessie Smith and her music—something that always necessitates reverence.
Initially published in November, this essay by music critic Amanda Petrusich on the late Blues singer Bessie Smith has been making the rounds on the internet this week. Part biography and part review, Petrusich writes about how Smith’s story counters “the conventional blues myth [of] a portrait of alienation that appeals, in some ways, to the types of folks who write those stories, either via the collection of rare 78 rpm records or the composition of essays and books… It implies that the culture is not a meritocracy, and that genius is not always recognized in its time. It lionizes and martyrs the outlier, and incentivizes anguish.”
Instead, Petrusich traces how Smith “got what she wanted by working hard at it, finding new ways to profit from a cultivated skill. This is not to imply that Smith’s work is artless—it’s not; often her delivery of a line feels truly unprecedented, as if she has just invented a new way to sing. It’s only to point out that she is an astoundingly precise vocalist. Some of the notes she hits are so robust, so fixed and powerful, listening to them feels like walking directly into a sliding glass door. You are stunned and embarrassed, looking around to see who else saw. Her forcefulness just sneaks up like that.”
When I finished writing this, I turned off my lights and listened to Bessie Smith in the dark, reveling in all the ways her voice met my ear—even when it’s a digital file being played.