Bessie Smith and The Devil’s Music

by Chris Murray on September 11, 2017

Bessie Smith: The Anthology Bessie Smith: The Anthology

The Back Room has been closed over the summer and while in Ireland, I was listening to Bessie Smith: The Anthology. Soon after returning to Washington, I went to see The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith, presented by the Mosaic Theater Company.

The Devil's Music The Devil’s Music program cover.

In 1996, I went in search of the roots of the Blues at the suggestion of my son, David Murray, who accompanied me to Clarksdale, Mississippi, along with Govinda artist Carlotta Hester. We found ourselves at the Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale, sitting with its proprietor, Mrs. Z. L. Hill. The Riverside is where Bessie Smith died in 1937 following an automobile accident on Highway 61. Mrs. Hill enjoyed David and his precocious love of the Blues, and she showed him the room where Bessie Smith had passed away.

That trip to Clarksdale proved to be very eventful, as we then drove east to Oxford, Mississippi, where we ended up meeting the extraordinary Dick Waterman. Apart from managing Bonnie Raitt for many years and founding Avalon, the first Blues artist management agency, Waterman photographed many of the greatest Blues musical artists during the first Blues revival in the sixties. That meeting with Dick Waterman led to me editing the book, Between Midnight and Day: The Last Unpublished Blues Archive, which also featured an introduction by Peter Guralnick and a Preface by Bonnie Raitt. Govinda also hosted the first gallery exhibition of Dick Waterman’s photographs.

Between Midnight and Day: The Last Unpublished Blues Archive Between Midnight and Day: The Last Unpublished Blues Archive

It was eighty years ago this month, on September 26th, that Bessie Smith passed away at the Riverside Hotel. Smith was laid to rest in an unmarked grave until 1970, when Janis Joplin commissioned a headstone in memory of her idol.

Janis Joplin, Newport Folk Festival, 1968. Copyright Dick Waterman. Janis Joplin, Newport Folk Festival, 1968. Copyright Dick Waterman.

Dick Waterman’s photographs are available through Govinda Gallery.

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