The Vanishing Artist

by Brendan I. Koerner

I'm eternally fascinated by great artists who seemingly fall off the face of the Earth. Many disappear because they lose battles against their demons, but others simply decide to change paths and opt for stability. Bettye Swann certainly falls into the latter category, as detailed in this excellent 2005 piece from Las Vegas City Life:

Dressed in her church clothes, Swann brings me what looks like a blue plastic lunch box containing maybe a dozen photo negatives and the original sheet music to her 1967 Top-20 pop hit "Make Me Yours."

And that's about it.

"OK," I say, trying to hide my disappointment.

"I know," she says, apologetically. "Over the years, when somebody would ask me for something, I didn't feel like I needed to keep everything. I could just sing if I wanted to hear it. It's not a life-or-death thing for me. The only time I worry about not having kept it all is when a journalist calls me up." She shrugs. "Besides, I'm constantly writing. I never stopped writing, and I never stopped singing. Music has its power when used in the right way."

By "the right way," I assume she means for the purposes of celebrating Jehovah. For the last 25 years, Swann has been a devout Witness. "So why did you quit the music industry anyway?" I ask, as I check to see if the digital voice recorder on the table is still working.

Swann sighs, then looks out the window. "I love music and I love people," she says, finally. "But I hate show and I hate business. I couldn't feel it, the show or the business."

As someone who desperately wants to be admired and respected for their creative output, it's tough for me to fathom the gumption it takes to chuck it all. Maybe Swann made a mistake by refusing to share her talent with the world past 1980. Or maybe she just enjoys a level of wisdom that those of us saddled with egos will never know.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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