Once upon a time, only a few decades ago, there were newspaper columnists who produced something approaching art, columns which were lovingly crafted, where every word was given the attention of a poet, and which, though made for a disposable medium, were created to linger in the minds of the reader.
Now...oh, don't get me started. I'd rather focus on the past. The present is so much more grim. (Out of Town News, a landmark of my youth and many others' in Boston, is going to close. Harvard Square has lost its last, best link to its past). I would rather celebrate the past than contemplate what the future is likely to be like. (No, I'm not fearing it. Just hating it).
Let us consider, briefly, Murray Kempton. Great journalist. Pulitzer Prize winner. Author of Rebellions, Perversities, and Main Events, which is one of the best collections of essays I've ever read, made all the more impressive when you consider that he turned out some of them three times a week.
Newspaper columnists today are non-entities, mediocrities, sycophants, nattering nabobs of negativity, mean-spirited putzes in the shape of human beings, and shrieking ideologues. But once upon a time Kempton was around, and produced the following on a few days' notice:
Woke up yesterday morning where there is not a chicken to crow for day and remembered that on September 27 next Bessie Smith will have been dead for fifty years.
She was killed a few miles from Clarksdale, Mississippi. The gods could not have selected a more appropriate place to close her epic, because Clarksdale is not very far from the railroad tracks where the Southern used to cross the Yellow Dog and where Miss Susie Johnson's Jockie Lee had gone.
September is a while away. But what fitter day for filing an advance notice of this special occasion could there be than July 4, which is sacred to the falling-short but undiscouragable pursuit of happiness that is most of what the works of Bessie Smith are about. Most but, as usual with great subjects, by no means all.
The rising sun ain't gonna set in the East no more
- "Hard Time Blues"
To distill a complexity into the sparest of direct statements and still preserve intact its paradox was among the subtler of Bessie's arts. We have no way to know the source of most of her lyrics; she must have picked up a good many in the carnivals and others were written for her by hands more practiced. But a lot of these words have to be her very own and they bring us the sense of being in the company of the last of the Anglo-Saxon poets. There are, as an instance, those lines in "Lost Your Head Blues" that have been authenticated as pure improvisation: "Once ain't for always and two ain't but twice." I have puzzled over them off and on through my conscious life and am yet to be sure precisely what they mean. All that I know with certainty is that they are entirely beautiful.
If I ever get my hands on a dollar again,
I'm gonna hold on to it till the eagle grin.
- "Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out"
Or "My heart's on fire but my love is icy cold." No generation is long enough to produce more than one writer who can bring off this cadence so perfect that, when you think you remember it and look it up, you find that you were wrong because you had allowed some bit of dross - say, an adverb - from your own literary baggage to intrude and spoil the rhythm and taint the purity of the original. Those of us who learned to write from the blues are to be envied, and those of us who have since forgotten the lesson are to be pitied.
Thirty days in jail and I got to stay there so long.
- "Jailhouse Blues"
"Jailhouse Blues" was her first record and the first of hers I ever owned, which is to say that it was the one I have played most and thus the one I have loved most, because the record of Bessie's you have heard most often ends up the deepest in your heart.
I also saw and heard her once at the old Howard Theater in Baltimore in 1933, and was too overwhelmed for any coherent recollection. Witnesses to the apparitions of creatures from another world are seldom useful for details. I have only two memories. One is the shock of the recognition of how faintly even her records conveyed the immensity of her actual presence.
The other involves one of my companions, who was far from having conquered his baby fat and was indeed huge enough to be the most conspicuous figure in the house except of course Bessie herself. At one point she descended from higher things to "One-Hour Woman," one of the requisite dirty songs her grandeur somehow always kept from being quite disgusting, and then she noticed Freddy and, like giantess calling out to giant, she began singing that she had found in him her one-hour man.
He turned turkey red and fled the theater. Long afterward I ran into him and wondered as tactfully as I could if he remembered the afternoon we had gone to hear Bessie. He replied that he had and that, even though dozens of women had since bruised his heart, it was the supreme regret of his life that he had not held his ground and heard the whole set.
"Is it true," he asked, "that she sang `Muddy Water'?" I answered that she had and his sigh had resonances of sorrow and loss not unworthy of her own. We would still have no more used for her any name except the bare and stately "Bessie" than we would have spoken of Juno as Mrs. Jupiter. Goddesses do not have last names.
A while back I fell into one of those tiresome discussions where the other party says you take Julius Erving and I'll take Larry Bird and you take Sarah Vaughan and I'll take Ella Fitzgerald. There was no disposing of such nonsense except to observe that the years have taught me to be grateful for having them all, but I had to say that Sarah Vaughan is the greatest jazz singer I have ever heard. "What about Bessie Smith?" a bystander inquired. I could only answer that I had concluded that there could never have been a Bessie Smith; the molds where they stamp out human beings are just too small for stuff of those proportions.