Bessie Smith was a hard-livin’ hard lovin’ Gospel preacher of the Blues. She had a powerful presence and a powerful voice that reached down into the gut and let her listeners know that life can be mean and love can throw you to the ground and nobody gets out without bumps and bruises. But she also showed that you can wrestle your blues and get on top of it by singing the blues and that was the healing tonic people bought with their ticket to her shows or shelling out hard-earned money for one of her records.
In 1937, 43 years old and at the height of her career, she got in a car accident in Mississippi. Injured, but still alive, an ambulance came and took her to a hospital in Clarksdale. Because it was an all-white hospital in the segregated South, they refused to help her and she died before she could reach a black hospital much further down the road.
Nothing about this hospital story is true. This was the version producer John Hammond gave of the incident and it later was re-told in Edward Albee’s play, The Death of Bessie Smith and became an accepted legend. She did get into an accident and was taken to a hospital, but no ambulance driver would have dropped her at an all-white hospital. She was taken to the G.T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital where they amputated her severely injured right arm and she died the next morning.
Everything about this story is true. These kinds of things happened all the time in the segregated South and in fact, something like this did happen to Billie Holiday’s father, Clarence Holiday, a jazz guitarist. He had served his country in World War I and was exposed to mustard gas. In 1937, the very same year as Bessie's accident and at 39 years old, he fell ill with a lung disorder while on tour in Texas and was refused treatment at a local white hospital. He was only allowed in the Jim Crow ward of the Veterans Hospital, and by then pneumonia had set in and without antibiotics, the illness was fatal.
Segregation was not a simple “separate but equal”policy— it was a matter of life and death.
LISTENING SUGGESTION: Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out is one of many ways to feel the power of Bessie Smith’s singing and in this case, describes both the personal story of someone down on their luck and the pain of being black in a racist society.