top of page

THEN SEE IF I CARE • A Story about Bessie Smith


"Bessie Smith
richly deserves
David Crittendon’s
hypnotic telling
of her life story."

              – Jon Else

"Prose that is as lyrical as her song."
              – A.B. Spellman



The ache of hunger laid down the indelible bass-line for the music of Bessie Smith, Empress of the Blues, and David Crittendon’s new work of fiction, THEN SEE IF I CARE: A Story About Bessie Smith, makes you feel her yearning down to your bones. Yet this is no low-down, foot-dragging dirge.


With prose that rings true to African American idiom yet resounds with Crittendon’s singular poetic voice, THEN SEE IF I CARE is by turns defiant, bawdy, mocking, starkly bitter, and jubilant, initiating us into an encounter with the woman behind the legend.

Smith grew up poor, black and restless in rural Blue Goose Hollow, outside Chattanooga, Tennessee on the cusp of the 20th century. Crittendon channels her earliest sensations of deprivation, loss, voracious appetite and ambition with irresistible urgency.


As a child, Smith sang and clowned on the streets “for dimes.” She already had her eyes on the prize of wealth and fame, but even as a child wanted more than just the pearls and satins (at her peak, she toured the country in her own lavishly appointed Pullman) that soon came her way: she wanted black people to hear her, and to know that through her, their voices, from raunchy Saturday night jukin’ to righteous Sunday morning praise, were also heard.


Her classic recordings include “Downhearted Blues”, “T’ain’t Nobody’s Bizness if I Do,” “Do Your Duty”, and “Gimme a Pigfoot (And a Bottle of Beer)”. Her swaggering vocal style is acknowledged as an American treasure, and has been imitated by generations of singers ranging from Billie Holliday to Janis Joplin, from Diana Ross to Nora Jones.

Crittendon, himself is an accomplished recording artist, jazz composer and pianist, teacher and political activist in Los

Angeles, and dedicates the book to his Southern grand- parents. The purling cadence of traditional regional language unspools a steady backbeat through his lush imagining of Smith’s life, which is written in the first-person. He commands the story with a voice which is not only engaging and authentic, but strikingly contemporary.

At its most essential core, this writing takes the form of poly-rhythmic, spoken-word music which demands to be voiced aloud, burnished by the cadence of Scripture, and seasoned with the tang of secular regional speech:

“In spite of the success and fame, those years in Blue Goose Hollow were the best of all. Daddy and Mama held me like a bird in a nest. Rising early Sunday like any day, water boiled for mush, got us up and out, our shabby best pressed like it was silk, then paraded us like geese all the way to church. It wasn’t easy but then what is? 

She’s a silver horn in a crushed velvet case. She’s tailor-made, ain’t no hand-me-down.” 

The author humbly credits the recently deceased Chris Albertson’s definitive biography of Smith, BESSIE (originally published in 1972, and revised in 2003), as a key inspiration, serving as the stepping-off point from which Crittendon conducted his own exhaustive research into the life of the



Readers familiar with the history of American music will recognize figures and factual events as the underpinning for the narrative arc.


But readers with no background at all in the facts of jazz literature will also hear in Crittendon’s telling “a voice so blue it’s calling the planets to come home.”

“By all means read David Crittendon’s novella, Then See If I CareIt is a paean to the immortal Bessie Smith, known in her time as “The Empress of the Blues.” I believed the complicated woman whom he made in these pages in prose that is as lyrical as her song.


He has set her in a credible, horribly racist early 20th century America, given her a voice that at times conveyed the powerful brass of her sound, and at other times was as tender as the most lovin’ blues, and surrounded her with three-dimensional characters who all ring true. I believed every word.” – A. B. Spellman

“A superb celebration of the Empress of the Blues!

An inspiring read!” – Marilyn Chin

“As if the Empress herself were whispering in his ear, David Crittendon writes this story of Bessie Smith as richly as she sang...and if I didn’t know better, I’d say that he was an eyewitness to her blues.” – V. Kali, Anansi Writers Workshop


We all get the biographer we deserve, and Bessie Smith richly deserves David Crittendon’s hypnotic telling of her life story. His riveting journey into the joys and sorrows of being Bessie Smith, told entirely in the first person, is a tour de force of original biography.

Crittendon ever so fluidly guides us on a ripping good read through the sublime and searing path of a little girl’s fierce determination, a young woman’s power, and finally, a great artist’s tragedy.

His adopted native tongue is the turn of the century talk of south- ern folk, musical, fluid, and layered, like “a trumpet with lots of bass.” As Crittendon conjured Bessie Smith’s language, her most intimate thoughts, and “lonely hollering” with such power and nuance I often forgot that this tale was written from the inside out – not from the outside in – by a 70 year-old man. Astonishing.

For all its fluid richness, this slim volume is spare and often plain- spoken; Crittendon understands, like Ms. Smith, that “not every note is worth singing.” Indeed.

Beyond his bracing new view inside the realities of African Ameri- can life in the 1920s and 30s, Crittendon serves as the best sort of enabler for a raft of Bessie Smith’s own provocative ideas: the importance to Black folks of owning places (like brick and mortar houses and record companies), refusal to accept the romanticism of religious gobbledygook, white folks’ passive-aggressive love affair with black music.


The only downside to “Then See If I Care” is that you will,
I guarantee, put it aside at least once every chapter to go straight down magical rabbit holes listening anew to “Backwater Blues,” “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” only to return to Ms. Smith herself, magically evoked by David Crittendon.  

                                                                      – Jon Else



From David Crittendon

I wrote a book about Bessie Smith because she made me cry, rage and be proud of who I am.

I was taught how to write so readers could both see and hear a story unfold as the pages turned. No time for forgetting the lives of blood and kin. It was the story of my Black family from Tennessee to Illinois, my job as a Black writer to not let the African American journey fall by the wayside.  It is a honor to enshrine Black survival and represent it  today and the decades to come.


Then See If I Care is a Black woman’s story about poverty, race and talent. Bessie’s blues could put a shovel upside your head, awaken you to the  suffering of the world and the courage of the poor.  I told her story with grit and courage, did my best to enshrine her mighty soul. 


It took a lot of nerve for a queer black man to write from a famous singer’s voice but that’s what makes the book work. Bessie is always talking to the reader, inviting her/him to the party of intense living and performance. The many years it took to write this book are all worth it. 


Bessie Smith put heart into my words, dared me to toy with her legend. She spoke in dreams twice when my courage failed. That visitation was a warning. Don’t fool with the Empress. She stood for me and all whose lives were considered limited. Black, angry and proud, filled with contradiction and ambition, Bessie Smith lived the life she promised herself to have. This is a story that elevates us all.  



David Crittendon c/o Blue Racer Books

info @ Bessie Smith

Thanks for submitting!

bottom of page