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Looking for Bessie

Jen Wilson

Bessie Smith, Mount Lawn Cemetary,
Sharon Hill, Philadelphia PA USA 1994

In September 1994, 57 years after her death, I set off on a heritage pilgrimage to find the last resting place of Bessie Smith, the classic blues singer, to place flowers on her grave from the Women's Jazz Archive. The day was such that many assumptions I had previously held about her place in American music history, had to be laid aside. Mike and I, had been invited to spend a working holiday performing with the musicians of the Historic Fayette Theatre in West Virginia. We bought an open Amtrak ticket and caught a slow train The Mayflower from New York. Realising that Philadelphia was en route to West Virginia, we got off, intent on commemorating our visit at Bessie Smith's graveside. We booked into the Independence Park Hotel, in the historic district. The Old Colonial Flag hung above the fireplace in the lobby. We were well pleased with what Philly had to offer with trips to the Norman Rockwell Museum, the Churchyard of the City Fathers and later, clam chowder, tuna and shrimp at the Philadelphia Fish Company.

Tyrone the young, Black, hotel Desk Clerk, had never heard of Bessie Smith and looked dubious at the cemetery address. "Think that's over the 'hood, best stay uptown" was his advice. Worrying about escalating taxi meters and whether the driver would wait for us while we looked for the grave, we decided to book a Town Car With Driver from the hotel brochure, for 10am the following morning. Next day we rather nervously, owing to the great historical significance of the occasion, sat under the lobby flag with plastic bags full of books about Bessie Smith, camera equipment and a large bouquet of flowers. The sweet perfumed bouquet had been excitedly arranged for us by two charming gay florists who wished us well on our pilgrimage. They had never heard of Bessie Smith either. At precisely 10am a figure swept into the lobby and approached the desk. Tyrone gestured in our direction and an Al Pacino look-alike dressed immaculately in a black silk suit turned and approached. His face immobile and guarded by large shades beneath a flat-top haircut, he cut an intimidating figure. "Town Car for Wilson, Ma'am, Sir" with the suggestion of a salute with one finger to the edge of his shades. His head inclined slightly downward to take in the array of Tesco carrier bags containing the books. With a murmured "Let me" he scooped up the bags and "the car is outside ma'am, sir" we followed him to the street. Outside awaited a long, black Lincoln limo with smoke-black windows. He deposited our bags and camera in the boot and held his arms out for the bouquet which he lay inside. Opening the rear door he said "I understand we are paying our respects this morning ma'am, sir. Please make yourselves comfortable" and settled us into the cavernous rear. On the seat was a crisp copy of that morning's Wall Street Journal and an in-board telephone system, and refreshments.

He slid into the driver's side and pointed out in-board facilities, including the sweets and nuts arranged in cut-glass bowls on the rear window. "Address please?" he asked as we slid into traffic with only the hiss of the air-conditioning to be heard. With mounting anticipation, I flourished Chris Albertson's paperback over the front street with its piece of paper with the plot number on it and prattled on. "Beg pardon ma'am?"... Mike had to interpret the Welsh accent. "I think that's a neighbourhood, sir, other side of town". Realising we were anxious he would not be able to find it, he murmured "I'll find it ma'am" and took a u-turn down to the freeway. "The company and I would like to offer our condolences ma'am, sir, in your bereavement". We hastened to reassure him that the lady we were visiting had been dead nearly 60 years. "That so ma'am?" and we swished on down into open country.

Sometime later, he turned off the freeway, and we began to pass small dwellings; Mr. Pacino's driving slowed as he figured out the route in his head. We had settled into silence in the rear. We turned off into a country lane and the car crept to walking pace. Mr. Pacino grunted in satisfaction. "Sharon Hill, ma'am, sir". Tall hedges obscured the view. Then, a gateway came up on our right. Mr. Pacino steered up the incline to a small group of buildings in shadow beneath trees, one obviously an office. I was out of the car. The office door was locked. I knocked. Nothing. Knocked again. The door opened and an elderly, tall, imposing Black woman in a print dress and spectacles stood inside. I smiled hullo and rushed on with my questions, Mike and Mr. Pacino now behind. The lady stepped back into the gloom, I hesitated. Mr. Pacino took over with an "allow me, ma'am", and in his slow drawl asked instructions to "Grave no.3, range 12, lot 20, section C Miss Bessie Smith, please ma'am". The lady stepped forward and leaned out of her doorway and issued directions waving her arm to the left. I understood not a word. I realised she had not understood a word I had said either. She retreated and shut her office door. I admit to being taken aback. I had expected a fund of information and anecdotes about the famous Miss Smith's grave and its visitors, together with the famous American welcome to its tourist industry. Turning towards the car, it began to dawn on me the sight we must have presented to the guardian of the cemetary. The mafia had showed up with two rednecks, Mike's resplendent red beard and shades a dead give-away.

Abashed, we got in the car. It crunched slowly over the gravel and up and over the rise at walking pace, into the glare of the sun. Stretching away were fields and meadows dotted with headstones and occasional shady trees, shimmering in the heat. I leant over the front seat asking if he knew where Bessie's grave was, ashamed I couldn't understand the local vernacular. Mr. Pacino was reassuring. "Ma'am, we'll find your lady. She's over yonder someplace, to the left.... you talk a little fast if I may say so". "Told you", hissed Mike "you ought to speak Geordie like me". "Scuse me, sir?" says Mr. Pacino, and Mike explains Geordie and Welsh. "You folks from England, right?" says Mr. Pacino. "No, certainly not" says us, and explain Wales came first, the rest later, and how Geordieland was regarded as a separate entity within England. "Well, I hearda Scotch and Irish before, but not Welsh and Geordie's ma'am... I'll stop and ask the old gent upahead how far now". Alone under the sun, an ancient Black man tended his verges with long clippers. He watched us approach and stepped back into the grass. I left it to Mr. Pacino. He's out of the car and showing the bit of paper, I hear "Miss Bessie Smith" from our chauffeur. A shake of the head and shrug from the old man. He backs away from Pacino, gesturing further with his arm. We glide on. A young man is in the distance on a motor mower, he moves toward us, thinks better of it, but he too turns and mows away from us. Eventually we pull up and we get out. "The trees seem to be about right, according to the old lady". The heat knocks the breath out of us. There is no sound, no breeze, no rustle of leaves, just the odd bird call. There are gravestones as far as the eye can see, all settled amid immaculately kept grounds. A large oak stands away from us on a rise. Mr. Pacino takes over, as his charges are obviously wilting and confidence has drained away. "OK, let's split up. Sir, you take that section over to the left, ma'am, you take this middle section here, and I'll take from there over to the right. We'll walk forward and scan 20 feet each side. We'll find your lady". We do as we are told. Pacino, the essence of cool, walks off to the right with the paper. We are soaked to the skin with sweat in the mid-90s heat, and looking crumpled and disheveled. Not what I intended for the memorial photographs for the Jazz Archive. I glance to the right, Mr. Pacino away in the distance shimmers in the heat haze. He's kneeling in the grass apparently wiping dust off a headstone. He waves, we wave back. I fear for his suit.

Eventually, there's a shout up ahead from Mike, and he's yelling and waving his arms about. I make my way through the headstones and gaze in awe at the words Bessie Smith. We fall silent. Mr. Pacino rushes up and bends down to look. We smile and thank him for helping us, and he straightens and again gives his touch to his shades and steps back. "Excuse me ma'am, sir, I'll just move the car under those trees down there. You just take your time...". He turns away. We later hear the scrunch of tyres as he eased the car into the shade. He remains at the wheel.

We sit in the grass not sure what to do next. Overcome. A little embarrassed. The total silence is a shock. Bessie Smith would surely never have experienced such quiet and stillness in her boisterous and noisy life. With her remains barely feet away, I start to wonder what she would have thought of this unlikely scenario. I lay the bouquet across the top of the headstone. To my surprise, I feel tears pricking at the back of my eyes and in my confusion I fuss around bringing out the books, and propping them up in front of the headstone. We start shooting some film. We take a roll. Worrying that they won't come out, we take most of another roll. Then we sit and talk about her, and about her last hours when her arm was nearly torn off in the car crash, the controversy whipped up after her death on whether she was awarded adequate first aid and later hospital care, and the theories that Columbia Records had fanned rumours in order to cash in on expected increased record sales after her death. It was so very sad. She probably would have contributed another 40-odd years to music if she hadn't died aged 43.

Eventually, we stroll amongst Bessie Smith's neighbours. Close by are Ardelia (1878-1936) and George (1860-1947) Pate of Shiloh B. Church School. Also close are The Gaskin family: Jerome (1881-1936), Beulah (1888-1970) and Grandmom Mitchell (-1937). Nearby Ashbel W. Brown Pvt. 14 Co.154 Depot. Also nearby Lionel Bradford Gilliam, US Air Force, Korea. At her head Jimmie Lee Mathis (aged 61), and Curtis Emil Mathis (aged 16). To the side Sister Marie Norton (aged 18).

We take a last look. We gather our belongings and make our way down to the car. Immediately Mr. Pacino is out and standing by the bonnet. We apologise for his long wait. He says he is writing a novel and keeps notes in the dash. Then, he asks about "The Lady Miss Smith". I tip out all the books on the bonnet and give him a potted history - we all lean over his bonnet. Then he asks if she is famous "back home in the UK". I tell him about all the singers she has influenced and about the younger generation coming along behind who use her lyrics and music as a political learning tool. He is amazed and turns over the pages of photographs. He also receives a potted history of British and Welsh popular culture. A half-hour idles away. Judging the situation about right, I suggest that as he has been the pivot around a highly successful outcome to The Search For Bessie Smith, would he consent to having his photograph taken... for Archive purposes, of course? "Well surely ma'am, an honour, on this great occasion... pleased ..." he mumbles. We arrange him in various poses with headstones behind him. For the first time, he relaxes and grins delightedly. Then the three of us covered in dust, get back in the car, and he says "Now in return, I'd like to tell you about my town Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on the way back", and we all chew toffee and fudge in the air-conditioning as he guns down to Lindbergh Blvd. and listen to his stories: about social groupings and neighbourhood demarcation lines, how the Italians don't get on with the Blacks, how William Penn's ship Welcome arrived in the Delaware River in 1682, and names what he sees as Philadelphia; the state is later named after William Penn, and how the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence on 2nd July 1776.... "Independence for some I guess.....". On the right we pass the naval dockyard with lines of mothballed shipping. "Causing great hardship to some folks" he says and shakes his head. He proudly points out a huge complex on the left "this wonderful sportin' facility Veterans Stadium seatin' 58,000 for the Phillies Baseball and 68,000 for the Eagles Football. Yes indeed!" Leaning over the seat I ask whom he usually carries in the back? "Politicians mostly, businessmen and such. Take 'em up to Noo York, or Washington. Sometimes I get to ferry 'em around, 2 or 3 days, bring 'em back..... First time I go to Mount Lawn Cemetery though. Quite a day, ma'am. Won't forget Miss Bessie Smith in a hurry, must look out for her records". We all laugh. "Shall I tour downtown for you folks? You have time left". We decline the invite and ask for the bar that sells the coldest beer. He pulls up at a bar with tables and umbrellas out on the sidewalk, a block from our hotel. "Coldest beer in town. Ask for a Philly Sandwich with the beer", he grins. He's out on the pavement pumping our hands. "It's been a great day. Take care now" and he touches his shades. We've never seen his full face. He drives away with his hand in salute out the window. The following morning we catch the Amtrak Cardinal from Penn Station and arrive at night in Mount Hope, in the West Virginian mountains, population 1500, and tell everybody on the back porch about the day we went to see Bessie Smith with Al Pacino.