• Remembering Bessie Smith

    Email Print
    Share

    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.

    Email Print
    Share
  • Political Theatre

  • LRC Blog

    LRC Podcasts