Bessie Smith At The Crossroads
The Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale, Miss., is located on Sunflower Avenue, a street that winds along with the curves of the silty Sunflower River. The compact brick-fronted building leans down the rise with one story at street level and the second, lower one crouched behind and underneath. Since 1944, the Riverside has been a modest layover for travelers. Seven years before that, though, it was still the G.T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital, a facility earmarked for black patients under Jim Crow law, and it was in the fall of 1937 when Bessie Smith died there, after a car accident on Highway 61 on the way from Memphis to Clarksdale — a stretch of about 75 miles well-traveled by performers during the days of the chitlin circuit. Some accounts of Bessie Smith's last hours add the detail that her ambulance was turned away from a segregated hospital en route, and the extra miles she spent riding, injured, sealed her fate.
But that's a dramatic embellishment to an already tragic story. Smith was a star at the time of her death, a quantified success. She had been a headliner on the Theatre Owners Booking Association black vaudeville circuit, had starred in the two-reel 1929 talkie St. Louis Blues and had sold hundreds of thousands of records. Still, any blues historian will tell you, no ambulance driver would have even tried to stop, under Jim Crow law in 1937, at a white hospital with a black patient.
On Easter Sunday 2019, the river behind the Riverside is so still at low tide it looks like slick, coffee-colored dirt, with trees rising up out of its banks adding to the impression that water is land. The building seems to sit placidly, almost dipping its haunches in the river. Out front, there's a marker from the state of Mississippi's Blues Trail project, a heavy dark-blue placard trimmed in brassy filigree and emblazoned with images and text about the site's importance — it became a hotel in 1943 and hosted Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Sam Cooke, among others — as well as Smith's death.
The Mississippi Delta, especially as defined by the official blues markers that help guide tourism, is really not all that big: From their junction in Clarksdale, highways 49 and 61 branch out like a wishbone. At the widest part, it takes less than an hour to cut across from Greenwood – the likeliest burial spot for Robert Johnson – to Greenville, which has several Blues Trail markers of its own. It only takes about six hours to shoot straight from Memphis down to New Orleans, although, of course, for fans of the evolution of American popular music, there are plenty of places to dally in between. And it's a strange landscape, if you take 61 or 49 instead of the interstate. The miles roll on at a sedate speed limit, lanes bordered on either side by wet rice fields or dry brown acres knobbly with cotton bolls.
These are the kind of roads Bessie Smith's car was on when it crashed north of Clarksdale, and they don't look much different today. A Blues Trail smartphone app makes it easy to navigate between sites like the B.B. King Museum in Indianola, with its state-of-the-art interactive digital music exhibits or the squat white buildings of the old Parchman Farm, which is still the operating Mississippi State Penitentiary. It'll take you to the little churchyard in Greenwood that always seems to be slightly flooded, where the Robert Johnson grave marker is laden with liquor bottles, flowers, handwritten notes and on a weekend last spring, a silver watch draped over the granite.
There's the Dockery Farm plantation, too, where Charley Patton once worked in the fields and played music, a lushly green site that buzzes with insect noise between three or four creaky wooden buildings. Inside the old cotton gin, next to the machinery, a screen plays a short documentary film about the last generation of Mississippians who lived and worked on the plantation, in the middle of the 20th century. You press a button and it loops, and if nobody is there, the voices just keep going inside the weathered walls, telling their stories to the empty humid air.
The Delta, and Clarksdale in particular, trades in stories. Especially the tricky story of the blues, itself a vehicle for the tales of the country's most marginalized people. After all, black women like Bessie were the first stars of recorded blues, garnering fame and fortune with plainspoken songs from a point of view that had historically been silenced to the extreme. Sometimes this public storytelling, the version of history put out there for a steady stream of blues tourists, works great: the official Blues Trail markers, written by regional historians, are thorough and thoughtful. But sometimes, not so much. Over at the Riverside, there's another sign hanging up, a stylized portrait on metal marked "Bessie Smith." The image on it isn't Bessie; instead, it seems to be a widely-used photo of rhythm-and-blues singer LaVern Baker. (More on that later.)
Scott Barretta, a sociologist and blues specialist who teaches in the University of Mississippi's Center for the Study of Southern Culture (in Oxford, Miss., just 60 miles from Clarksdale) estimated that local investment in blues tourism technically began in 1979, when the local public library installed a temporary blues exhibit. It got its own wing in 1996 and in 1999, it moved to its current location as the Delta Blues Museum in an old railroad depot, whose address was reassigned as "One Blues Alley." (Two years later, when the Clarksdale-born actor Morgan Freeman opened the Ground Zero blues nightclub down the street, it got the address of Zero Blues Alley).
The late '80s brought the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival, co-founded by Jim O'Neal and Patty Johnson. In 1970, O'Neal and his then-wife Amy van Singel, both variously blues authors and journalists, radio hosts and record producers, had also started Living Blues magazine; according to Barretta, who researches and writes much of the information on the markers, before the Blues Trail, O'Neal's self-published Delta Blues Map Kit was the essential area guide for fans.
By the turn of the millennium, blues tourism in the Delta was gaining traction. The early 2000s brought an officially proclaimed "Year of the Blues" (2003) and the establishment of a state blues commission, which laid groundwork for the Blues Trail effort. There were new events, like the Juke Joint Festival and the Deep Blues Festival, drawing a steady influx of tourists to Zero Blues Alley and its environs in downtown Clarksdale which — although it's still a pretty empty-looking place — is populated with record and bookstores and folk art galleries all dedicated to the blues. On any given weekend you can hear tourists murmuring to one another in half a dozen languages. The international draw isn't limited just to listeners, either. One night at Ground Zero, I sat beside a group of Germans, watching the Belgian singer onstage take on rhythm-and-blues songs from New Orleans.
In a 2005 article for the Arkansas Review, then-Delta State University professor Dr. Stephen A. King (who would a few years later publish the book-length study I'm Feeling the Blues Right Now: Blues Tourism and the Mississippi Delta) wrote simply that it had become "a necessary response to a deteriorating economic situation in one of the country's most impoverished regions." He quoted O'Neal, too, from a 2004 Living Blues piece in which he wrote: "Whatever ironies may lie in the exaltation of a music born to poverty to boost the economy of the poorest state in the union, the fact is that Mississippi has finally realized that there is something to this business of Japanese and Norwegians and Californians showing up in search of blues sites and blues artists, buying bouquets at the local florist shop to place on some forgotten grave, or wandering around 'across the tracks' with guitars on their backs or cameras in their hands."
In discussing why it was Clarksdale and not another Delta town became the epicenter of this scene, Barretta agreed with me that its proximity to Memphis — another significant music tourism site only an hour away, with a convenient international airport — has something to do with it. He also pointed out that that junction of 49 and 61 fills a neat role in the likely fan fantasy of the blues: In 2017, Barretta interviewed musician and scholar Adam Gussow, another Southern Studies professor at the University of Mississippi, who had just published Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil in the Blues Tradition. Gussow pointed out that in 1999, city officials had declared the intersection to be the crossroads of mythology, where Robert Johnson had allegedly dealt with the devil in exchange for his talent.
"... what started the ball rolling was the minutes of a meeting between the mayor and the board of commissioners in which the city attorney drafted a resolution that would lead eventually to a law in 1999, and it used word the devil twice — basically, 'Be it resolved that Robert Johnson sold the soul at our crossroads,'" Gussow told Barretta.
"I thought, when in American history has the devil been invoked favorably in official government documents? I said if it's gonna happen, it's gonna happen in Clarksdale in the late '90s when they're trying to save themselves using blues tourism and rebrand themselves as the devil's home in the Bible Belt."
A more recent resolution from the Mississippi statehouse, celebrating this year's 40th anniversary of the library exhibit that would become the Delta Blues Museum, doubled down, formally (if tongue-in-cheek — the co-sponsor of the resolution is State Rep. Orlando Paden, the son of the owner of Red's, one of Clarksdale's most beloved juke joints) declaring the spot "the location where the legend Blues Musician Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil for the ability to play a mean guitar."
The Nashville-based singer Adia Victoria was one of the headliners of the Deep Blues Festival in Clarksdale in 2018; in her early 30s, she's a genre-shifting experimentalist who mines goth and punk sounds and electronic effects in her work. But she places herself firmly in the tradition of the blues, reaching back over more than a hundred years to connect to kindred spirits like Bessie Smith. On her own in her early 20s, after a sheltered and restricted childhood in a Seventh-Day Adventist family, Victoria resonated with the defiant, subversive and often humorous voices of the prewar blueswomen — who, against all apparent odds, had essentially created a thriving corner of the music industry on the voices of the least privileged people in America.
"Bessie and Ma [Rainey], they were one generation removed from slavery," Victoria pointed out before a performance in New Orleans this spring. And yet, she said, they were rebelliously free in their music. They sang about sex and desire, dared to make jokes and also told truths about hardship: poverty, violence, pain. Their boldness inspired her and convinced her she belonged in their lineage; they showed her a way to insist on authoring her own story, and gave her confidence that her voice deserved to be heard.
"I stand in awe of having your whole life policed, your body — down to who you bore children with, having some white man tell you 'This is who you're gonna f--- and have children with,'" she said. "To be one generation removed from that and be like, 'You know what? I'm gonna talk about these concepts and these parts of my life that are so wild and so shunned and taboo.' They didn't believe in taboos, they were like, 'This is me, this is what I'm doing.'
"Because, I believe it's not just about a twelve-bar shuffle, it's not just about one-four-five chord progression," she said. "I think that the blues has scholarship, I think that the blues is history, it's anthropology, it's sociology, it's all of these things that I had to understand if I was not going to lose my mind. I had to look for an alternative way of being an American other than what I was taught in school, right?"
I read a lot about the blues as a new fan in college, but the first thing I truly remember reading about Bessie Smith was a passing mention, in Ellen Willis' 1977 essay "Beginning to See The Light," about Smith's wrenching and defiant "Send Me To The 'Lectric Chair." She had heard the song, she wrote, about a woman who murdered her lover and is coming to terms with the consequences "hundreds of times" — but somehow heard it anew at a time when she was grappling with the '60s sliding into the '70s, rock into punk and other things, and of course, herself into the next version of herself.
"It was a fierce, frightening song," she wrote. "I played it over and over." Her visceral reaction gave me a new way to listen — maybe an alternative, the way Adia Victoria meant it, to the heavy diligence of the great blues documenters that had been, basically, what I was getting taught in "school."
I called the man who made the Bessie Smith sign with the photo of LaVern Baker on it; he's a Clarksdale-born and raised marketing consultant and music producer who also created a new website for the city a few years ago, which includes images and text for a few dozen similar signs that also hang around town. (Besides blues pioneers, there are also civil rights leaders, athletes and contemporary artists like Rick Ross and Nate Dogg.) We figured out that there are, indeed, copies of that photo — which is on the cover of Atlantic's Best of LaVern Baker collection — mislabeled as Bessie Smith in a Google Image search. But there's no getting around the idea that to choose that photo, out of all the correct ones that would also show up, is to decide that Bessie should look lighter-skinned, more slender and delicately featured and cuter, overall, than she actually was — that her actual face and body were not the preferable version of the story, even though her existence at all, let alone the prominence of her art, is basically a massive triumph against the odds.
Clarksdale sits on its own theoretical kind of crossroads between myth and history, navigating the preservation, celebration and exploitation of its rich vein of stories. The truth of it shifts around between all these listeners and tellers — inclusive of things like Ellen Willis' rediscovery of a song (and mine, too, reading hers), Adia Victoria's recognition of an America she can be part of in Bessie Smith's boldness and whatever the European tourists get out of watching other European tourists play the blues in the middle of Mississippi. At our best, we try to hear the story the way the teller meant it, we look for parts that didn't get told all the way, we look for who got to be the one to do the telling. We keep listening, and we get closer to knowing who and where we are.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.