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This is actually a false start, but I'm nonetheless working on writing at least 4,000 words of a speculative story in which Bessie Smith is a vampire. In this scene, she's canoodling with Benny Goodman (not just a pun on her song title; they actually toured together), but soon she will hook up with George Gershwin. She'll pass her immortal gift to him to save him from the brain tumor that, otherwise, will kill him. Its intended destination is the anthology Vampyres: A History Written in Blood.
A good man is hard to find, Bessie thought, chuckling. Leaning back against the cheap headboard, she watched Benny pour whiskey into a chipped tumbler. On the stage and in the sack, Benny was pure passion. Everywhere else, he looked so stiff and square he might’ve had a fireplace poker up his ass. Benny knew how to show a girl a good time, but this could never be a permanent thing.
“Get you another drink, doll?” he asked her.
She bristled at the overly-familiar nickname. The other boys in the band called her Miss Bessie, and she liked it that way. “Sugar, you got no idea how thirsty I am.”
He filled the other tumbler and brought it to her in bed, then sank into the uncomfortable chair in the corner. He sipped his whiskey steadily; Bessie downed hers in quick swallows. It hadn’t had an effect on her since ’29, the year she crossed over, but she could keep a secret.
Bessie had learned to keep the secret well. She hadn’t kept it from Jack, but then, Bessie’s late husband hadn’t had the decency to keep it in his own pants before he called out Bessie for her trysts. Jack had known about her back-alley fling with the Romanian, the one who’d taken her blood and given her the unasked-for “gift” of immortality. He brought it up that day – the last day of their marriage, the last moments of Jack’s life – to start one of their knock-down, drag-out fights. He hadn’t expected Bessie’s new strength…or her fangs.
She still smiled when she remembered the look on Jack's face right after she drained the life out of him. Whatever the Romanian had given her, she hadn’t passed it on to Jack. In nearly eight years, she hadn’t passed it on to anyone, as far as she could tell. She also hadn’t aged a day and hadn’t been sick once.
Benny reached over and fiddled with the knob on the radio. It crackled and groaned before he settled on a jazz station. Bessie recognized the instrumental. “Gershwin,” she said.
He bobbed his head enthusiastically. “From Girl Crazy – ‘Treat Me Rough.’ Not one of the best numbers in the show.”
“I don’t know,” Bessie said. “That one sounds truer than all those June-moon I-love-you songs I couldn’t sing with a straight face.”
As I'm researching this beautiful and immensely talented woman, I'm reading A Bad Woman Feeling Good: Blues and the Women Who Sing Them by Buzzy Jackson. It gives me more good information about the recently deceased Etta James. Part of the James chapter reads:
"For a seventeen-year-old, she certainly sounded like a woman. Just as the early blues queens such as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Victoria Spivey had brought sexuality, humor, and sass to the new world of blues recording,Etta James was bringing the same qualities to early rock 'n' roll. Sex was always one of James's favorite topics, from 'Roll With Me, Henry' on. Like Bessie Smith's 'I'm Wild About That Thing' (1929), James's songs were evidence that women enjoyed sex and were comfortable asking for what they wanted. They also depicted sex as an integral part of the romantic experience, something to be approached with humor and passion, as opposed to something a 'good girl' denied her partner, a concept popular among mainstream moralists that had been sold to women since the nineteenth century. Up until the feminist movement of the 1960s, women's blues were one of the few sources providing a counter-argument to the idea that sexual enjoyment was reserved for men only."
There you have it - blues women are the spiritual ancestors of erotica writers.
The other women's music book I read this week was a children's book I received free of charge from the Amazon Vine program: Jazz Age Josephine by Jonah Winter (words) and Marjorie Priceman (illustrations). Marjorie Priceman's illustrations are beautiful, especially the two-page spread of the Eiffel Tower.
The words don't completely impress me. The scat-singing parts aren't easy to read. The truncated story of how Miss Baker partially overcame racism and couldn't overcome loneliness, while it may indeed be true, is not a very emotionally satisfying read. I have a hard time imagining that the intended audience of children 4-8 will care very much about jazz or about Josephine Baker. Some noble parents or educators might display this one in February for Black History Month or in March for Women's History Month, but I doubt many children will count it among their favorites.
I hope I'm wrong, though. Josephine Baker is a fascinating and inspirational figure.