Remembering Bessie Smith

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September
26th is the sixty-fourth anniversary of the tragic death
of famous blues singer, Bessie Smith. The eighth child of a poor
black family in Chattanooga, Bessie began singing on street corners
for pennies when she was less than 10 years old. A local club operator
heard her; offered her $8.00 a week to sing at his tavern and so
her career began.

But
this is not the forum to explore her professional life as a singer
and entertainer, although her story makes fascinating reading. What
I want to discuss is how her death was exploited for greed and to
further a political agenda.

In
the years following Bessie Smith's death there were conflicting
accounts of how she actually died. What is known is that after a
late night performance somewhere in Mississippi, probably Natchez,
Bessie headed for Memphis in a car driven by her boyfriend, Richard
Morgan. In 1937 there were no expressways and Route 61 was a typical
poorly lit, winding two-lane road. Near the outskirts of Clarksdale,
in the early morning hours of that September day, their car, being
driven at a high rate of speed, crashed into the back of a truck
stopped on the side of the road.

Several
rumors began circulating regarding the cause of her death: she was
killed upon impact, she was taken to a hotel where she died; she
died in an ambulance en route to a hospital, and she was taken to
a white hospital that refused to treat her because she was black
and so she died as the ambulance tried to locate a black hospital.

Record
company executive, John Hammond, had a recording contract with Bessie
(more about that later) and was also her producer at the time of
her death. Hammond published an article in Downbeat magazine
stating, as a fact, that Bessie died because she was refused treatment
at a white hospital in Mississippi. He then had her recordings reissued
knowing that there would be a demand for them created by her untimely
death and the racially tinged circumstances surrounding it.

Years
later, as we entered the 1960s, the civil rights movement was taking
on more momentum and the entertainment industry was churning out
depictions of victimized minorities. Film and TV scriptwriters as
well as playwrights like Edward Albee were searching for material
for dramas portraying racial discrimination. Albee knew he had hit
pay dirt when he came across Hammond's account of Bessie Smith's
death. It had all the ingredients he was looking for; the unnecessary
death of a critically injured black woman caused by the bigotry
of heartless white Southerners.

In
1960, Albee's one act play "The
Death of Bessie Smith
" premiered in New York. Albee painted
Bessie as the ultimate victim trying to survive in the segregated
South. In the final scene Bessie's distraught lover stands in the
admissions department of a white hospital begging to have her admitted.
A spiteful white nurse, speaking with an exaggerated Southern accent
as demanded by the stage director, refuses to admit Bessie because
she is a Negro. So Bessie dies and audiences probably left the theater
feeling outrage against white Southerners.

Luckily
the facts surrounding Bessie Smith's death were investigated while
participants and witnesses were still alive. Here, as Paul Harvey
would say, is the rest of the story.

Immediately
after Bessie's car crashed into the back of the truck, another car,
coming from the opposite direction, arrived on the scene. The driver
was Dr. Hugh Smith, a white physician en route to join friends for
an early morning hunting trip. Dr. Smith found Bessie in an extreme
state of shock, bleeding profusely, one arm nearly severed and several
ribs broken. He dispatched Richard Morgan to get an ambulance while
he tried to stem the loss of blood and stabilize her condition.

While
Dr. Smith was attending Bessie, another car crashed into the back
of his parked car. Dr. Smith could see that the occupants of the
wrecked car, a white couple, were slumped over and splattered with
blood. But he continued his ministrations to Bessie until he and
the ambulance team had gingerly placed her into the ambulance. Then
the frantic doctor turned his attention to the injured white couple.

Albee
and others wanted the nation to think, that, after being refused
treatment at a white hospital, Bessie died while her ambulance raced
across the State of Mississippi desperately trying to find a black
hospital. But Clarksdale's black hospital was less than a mile away
from the white hospital. And there would have been practically no
traffic at that early morning hour so the trip could have been made
in a matter of minutes.

But
Bessie Smith was never taken to a white hospital. In the segregated
South of that time no ambulance driver would have taken a black
patient to a white facility. And, according to testimony from the
doctor and bystanders, the ambulance headed directly to the black
hospital rather than the white one. In all probability, Bessie died
from shock and loss of blood before she reached the hospital.

To
his credit, John Hammond withdrew his claim that Bessie was refused
treatment at a white hospital. He admitted that this was just one
of several rumors floating around and he knew nothing about the
actual facts surrounding Bessie's death. Edward Albee knew that
Hammond had changed his story but he also realized that the first
version would make better theater. Playwrights are entitled to a
certain amount of artistic license but Albee shouldn't have deliberately
scripted an untrue version of Bessie's death.

The
recording contract that Hammond negotiated with Bessie was, to put
it mildly, unusual. Obviously, Bessie Smith was not well versed
in financial transactions and was happy to be signed to a record
company. But her strange contract contained a "no royalties"
clause. Bessie was paid $30 for each recording she made and all
the royalties were paid to John Hammond. It is estimated that Hammond
earned over $60,000 on the sale of Bessie Smith's recordings. In
today's dollars this amount would be about five times as great.

Bessie
Smith is still an icon for feminists because of her struggle against
a patriarchal and discriminatory society. Lesbian groups consider
Bessie a heroine because of the bisexuality that she made no attempt
to hide. These organizations continue to mythologize Bessie and
spread Albee's version of her death.

But
those who have taken time to research the matter have repudiated
Edward Albee. Chris Albertson's fine biography "Bessie"
is a factual account of the singer's life and death. Also, in Frank
Kofsky series Black
Music, White Business
the truth about Bessie is covered
in a section called "Why let a little thing like death interfere
with exploitation?"

This
is just one of many incidents during the last few decades where
the usual scapegoats, white Southerners, were falsely maligned in
order to further a political agenda. The unethical exploitation
of both Bessie Smith and white Southerners proved to be highly profitable
for John Hammond and provided Edward Albee with a powerful political
stratagem.

"The
Death of Bessie Smith" was making headlines at a time when
Congress was discussing legislation to combat discrimination. I
maintain that Albee's play as well as other similar politicized
dramatizations not only influenced the political climate of the
early 1960s but also helped shape legislators' votes. It was in
this political environment that Congress passed the far-reaching
Civil Rights Act of 1964. In this bill Congress focussed on short-term
benefits, ignored long-range consequences, and included sections
that applied only to Southern states.

In
the 1970s, rock singer Janis Joplin was shocked to learn that Bessie
Smith was buried in an unmarked grave. A campaign to raise money
for a proper memorial was undertaken and requests for donations
were sent to all those who had been associated with this greatest
of all blues singers. John Hammond contributed $50.

Her
Music

These
comments are by Joel Snow of "Blues
Online
":

"Bessie
Smith had a huge sweeping voice, capable of strength and tenderness,
which she left behind on 160 recordings. She could convey the entire
meaning of a line by a subtle accent on a syllable. She could precisely
render a note, or u2018bend' a note to express her feelings. Bessie
recorded with many of the jazz greats of her day including Louis
Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Sidney Bechet, and Joe Smith, influencing
them as they influenced her. She also performed in the short movie
The St. Louis Blues (1929) which affords a rare opportubity
to see her sing."

Amazon.com
has over 20 of her CDs for sale
. Start with:

To
see her picture: www.geocities.com/BourbonStreet/Delta/6881/Smith.html

September
26, 2001

Gail
Jarvis [send
him mail
] is
a CPA living in Beaufort, SC, an unreconstructed Southerner, and
an advocate of limited government.

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