This poem was published in Kay’s Other Lovers and is one of a few poems that the poet wrote about Bessie Smith. In the collection, it’s featured as the fourth poem, right after ‘The Right Season,’ another Bessie Smith poem that’s commonly studied today.
Explore The Same Note
‘The Same Note’ by Jackie Kay focuses on the impact of Bessie Smith’s music. The poem was inspired by Kay’s connection to the blues singer.
Throughout this poem, the poet focuses on the way Smith’s music changed the world around her. It had immense power, Kay alludes. So much so that it could “knock down a tree with the force of a hurricane.” She could stop the rain with her song or call together all the people across town. Kay concludes the poem with a refrain, reminding readers of Smith’s determination.
You can listen to the full poem here.
Who is Bessie Smith?
To best understand this contemporary poem, it’s important to have prior knowledge of who Bessie Smith is and why she is important in Kay’s work. She was an American blues singer who died in 1937. She was known as the “Empress of the Blues” and was incredibly popular throughout the Jazz Age. Today, she’s regarded as one of the greatest singers of her time. She often features in popular culture, including in other songs, short stories, and films.
She’s also remembered for her resilience. She was faced with threats from the Ku Klux Klan, including an attempt to assassinate her. In 1997 Jackie Kay published a biography of Bessie Smith. Kay famously referred to her as “My libidinous, raunchy, fearless blueswoman.”
Kay admired the way that Smith stood up for herself and how her music told stories. She saw Smith as representing the person she wanted to be, someone who was strong and creative. Smith was also famously bisexual and one of the first well-known African American women to have documented relationships with women. Kay, as a black lesbian woman, was drawn to her at a young age.
The central themes of ‘The Same Note‘ are the power of music and how it can forge connections. The poet focuses on the impact that Bessie Smith, a famous blues musician, had on her youth and how she understood the world as she aged. Kay uses a variety of similes and metaphors to describe what Bessie Smith’s music can do.
Structure and Form
The poet uses a great deal of half-rhyme in the poem, something common to Kay’s writing when she’s speaking about Bessie Smith. It gives the poem an added element of rhythm and may evoke more song-like qualities that are well-suited to the content. In this case, she uses endings like “will” and “windmill” as well as “boomerang” and “sang.” The best example is “plain,” “mountain,” and “again” (used twice) in the last few lines.
The poet uses a few different literary devices in this poem. They include:
- Simile: a comparison that uses “like” or “as.” For example, “She could use it as a shelter, the roof of her mouth.”
- Imagery: the use of particularly effective descriptions. These are meant to trigger the readers’ senses and help them imagine a scene in great detail. For example, “Her voice could bring people running, like the church bell.”
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words, usually in succession. For example, “wood” and “wind” in line two.
- Allusion: a reference to something outside that’s never fully described or defined. Throughout this poem, the poet alludes to Bessie Smith’s music without ever using her name.
- Anaphora: occurs when the poet repeats the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “She could” in lines five and six.
- Metaphor: a comparison between two things that do not use “like” or “as.” For example, “her voice was a wood instrument or a wind one.”
Every note she sang, she bent her voice to her will;
or knock down a tree with the force of a hurricane.
In the first lines of the poem, the poet uses a refrain. The line “Every note she sang, she bent her voice to her will” is used as both the first and last line of the poem. This promotes a feeling of repetition in the poet’s use of natural language. She uses words like “wind,” “hurricane,” and “windmill” to suggest the movement of air and the power of nature (something that’s commonly found in Jackie Kay’s poetry).
The poet writes that Bessie Smith’s voice had the power to “turn the sails of the windmill,” clearly an example of hyperbole but one that’s meant to emphasize the power of music. Her songs were so striking and impossible to ignore. They were like the force of a hurricane.
She could get it right back like some kind of boomerang.
She could use it as a shelter, the roof of her mouth,
of the Mississippi Delta. Or walk the solid flat plain.
The poet continues to describe Bessie Smith’s voice in the next lines. She uses anaphora, seen through “She could,” in lines five and six. The poet emphasizes how Bessie Smith could overcome struggles in her life. She was determined not to be torn down by anyone. It highlights the determined mindset of the Black community that Bessie Smith often prompted through her music as well.
The poet uses several similes in these lines, describing how Smith’s music could form a shelter, a place where people could feel safe (as Kay did). It could stop all the hatred in the world and change one’s sadness. She uses the rain as a symbol of all the negativity one faces in life.
The words “she could” are repeated again in line eight. With her voice, the poet says, Bessie Smith could “fly” from her home and transport herself and others to new locations. Her music represents the possibility to Kay, something that inspired her during her youth and as she aged.
She could tell every story she wanted to tell;
if she wanted, she could rock herself to sleep, to dream.
The next lines describe Bessie Smith’s music further. The speaker says that Smith could use her music to tell any story she wanted to, and it would spread around the world, bringing people from all walks of life running. It had the power to unify and inspire. It elevated those listening to a common purpose like “the church bell / could when it was used as a warning.”
With an example of juxtaposition, the poet adds that just as Smith could warn people, she could also “rock herself to sleep, to dream.” The music was just as soothing as it was uplifting and invigorating.
Her own cradle swinging the same note, again and again.
Every note she sang, she bent her voice to her will.
The final five lines of ‘The Same Note‘ compare Bessie Smith’s music to “her own cradle.” She used it to soothe herself and uplift herself, just as it uplifted Kay in her youth. The repetition and power of her music are like a mantra, something to remind oneself of what’s important and what it takes to keep that determined and powerful mindset.
The poet repeats the simile, comparing Smith’s voice to a church bell, but adds in people running to her side and listening to her tell them about “their heaven or hell.” This suggests that Kay felt as though Smith could see into her life, understand her issues, and sing them back to her in a way that made her feel connected. The final line of the poem is the same as the first line. It is an example of a refrain.
The tone is passionate and appreciative. The speaker spends the lines highlighting how powerful and empowering Bessie Smith’s music is. It is capable of inspiring one to be the best version of themselves.
The purpose is to describe what it’s like to listen to Bessie Smith’s music. With an understanding of her songs, the speaker believes that her music is so important that one can use it as a metaphorical shelter and be transported to different places by it.
The poem ‘The Same Note’ is about Bessie Smith and the impact that Kay sees her music has on the world. It has a nearly magic quality that is able to draw people in like a church bell as much as it can lull them to sleep.
The poem was written in the early 1990s and published in Kay’s second collection, Other Lovers. The collection is known for exploring relationships of all kinds, in the present, between lovers, family members, and relationships with the past.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Jackie Kay poems. For example:
- ‘In the Seventh Year’ – a description of the wonderful, changing nature of a relationship.
- ‘Love Nest’ – a description of the difficulties that same-sex couples faced in the 1990s in Scotland.
- ‘Pork Pies’ – a dark poem inspired by a real-life true crime case in Britain in the late 90s.