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Back To Bessie
Bessie Smith was the greatest blues singer of all time; and her influence still permeates popular music though almost no one listens to her records. An appreciation by an eminent jazz singer.
November 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 7
Bessie’s next tour didn’t make money even in the South. Before, she had blamed poor turnout on the Depression; now she feared that she was losing her following. Still, she made the best of any breaks. She stepped in for Louis Armstrong after he canceled at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, and when Billie Holiday got sick and couldn’t play a date at Connie’s on Forty-eighth Street, Bessie replaced her, singing the latest songs with a swing band to a stylish midtown crowd. Word of her success with the new swing sound spread, more bookings came in, and things started looking up again.
She got a spot in a touring show and took to the road with Richard Morgan, who drove her used Packard. The show ended a successful run in Memphis on Saturday night, September 26, 1937, and Bessie, feeling restless, wanted to move on right away. Richard didn’t. They argued about it. When Bessie threatened to get someone else to drive her, he gave in. They left at 1:00 A.M. and traveled in strained silence for seventy-five miles on a straight dark stretch of road. Richard spotted the lights of a truck ahead, but by the time he realized it was crawling along at only a few miles an hour, it was too late. He swerved left but still hit the rear corner of the truck, with maximum impact on the Packard’s right door, where Bessie sat. The truck vanished into the night; Bessie’s right arm was nearly cut off and her side crushed. Bleeding profusely, she went into shock. She died in a Clarksdale, Mississippi, hospital at 11:30 on Sunday morning.
The associated press ran a brief report, and though it was full of mistakes, the white press through all her years of sold-out shows and hit records had never given her more space. Longer stories in the black papers were also inaccurate. But it was a music trade magazine that first printed the story that was to make her better known for her death than for her life.
John Hammond wrote an article in Down Beat titled “Did Bessie Smith Bleed to Death While Waiting for Medical Aid?” He reported having heard that “when finally she did arrive at the hospital she was refused treatment because of her color and bled to death while waiting for attention.” He admitted that the account could have been exaggerated, but the damage was done.
Jack Gee, Jr., and the liberal press jumped on the story and kept it alive, he for personal reasons, the press for political ones. A subsequent Down Beat story gave the correct information that Bessie had actually been taken directly to the black hospital in Clarksdale and had died from loss of blood, but the myth lived on.
The magazine made another attempt to rectify the error in the early 1940s, running an interview with the first person on the scene of the accident, a white doctor named Hugh Smith. Dr. Smith’s account was given again in 1969 in Esquire , but neither piece registered with the public. In 1960 Edward Albee’s play The Death of Bessie Smith expanded and spread the myth, and in 1970 Time magazine ran a piece titled “Racially Rationed Health,” which opened by citing the medical treatment of Bessie Smith in a sentence containing three erroneous details: “After her black Samaritan driver  had been turned away from white hospitals , she at last reached a hospital that was willing to admit her . . . dead on arrival .”
The persistence of the legend of her “disgraceful” death long after the truth was documented is a social phenomenon worth a study of its own. Americans—including ardent vocal music fans and reputable journalists—still seem to want and need to feel both collective shame and individual superiority as they blame Bessie’s death not on a highway accident but on the racism of an earlier generation.
Albertson’s book clears up the matter with a detailed account of the accident and its aftermath. The truck driver, afraid that his tires had overheated, had pulled over to have a look at them. He had just started moving again when Bessie and Richard’s car hit him. The Packard ricocheted backward and onto its left side. The truck drove off.
Dr. Smith and his friend Henry Broughton, who had just set out on a fishing trip, came upon the scene about ten minutes later. The doctor examined Bessie and saw that the bones around her elbow were shattered and the soft tissue sliced clear through but that the artery and nerves were intact. She had “severe crushing injuries to her entire right side.” She was “moaning and groaning from excruciating pain and she was having a lot of trouble getting her breath. She was just breathing on the left side of her chest, all the ribs on her right side had been crushed. . . . She wasn’t conscious enough to talk.” Broughton and Dr. Smith moved Bessie onto the grass, and Broughton went to a nearby house to call an ambulance from the black hospital.