During a breakfast meeting in late 1998, Director Joe Brancato mentioned that he and the gifted Miche Braden were interested in staging the life of Bessie Smith. Joe asked me to think about whether I’d like to write the script. I didn’t need to think about it; I jumped at the opportunity. Somewhat familiar with Bessie Smith’s life, and eager to work with such talented theatre pros, I immediately on board. Thus The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith was born of a synergistic effort, incorporating Joe’s vision, Miche’s musical arrangements, and my research and writing. The result was a script for which I was fortunate enough to be awarded a New York Foundation for the Arts Playwriting Fellowship.
One of the most interesting and perplexing choices I had to make concerning the script was whether to address the popular misconception about Bessie’s fatal accident. Bessie is now some three-quarters of a century behind us, and I’ve observed that today the “average person” knows Bessie Smith only as a black singer who died due to a hospital’s racism, if he or she remembers Bessie at all. For decades, it was “common knowledge” that, after a car crash, Bessie Smith was turned away from a whites-only hospital in Mississippi, and unnecessarily bled to death. One of our great dramatists, Edward Albee, dealt with the tragedy in The Death of Bessie Smith. So what’s the problem? Well, the story isn’t true. The erroneous account of Bessie’s death is one of those politically expedient myths that tends to creep up around, and sometimes obscure, important figures, like ivy climbing mighty oaks. While Bessie herself might have appreciated such a dramatically ironic ending to her extraordinary life, it has no basis in fact.
In the early morning hours of September 26, 1937, Bessie was a passenger in a car driven by her friend and lover Richard Morgan, and, near Clarksdale, Mississippi, the car collided with a truck and rolled over. The accident nearly severed one of Bessie’s arms and crushed half her body. A car carrying a doctor (white) stopped to offer assistance. Eventually, an ambulance arrived (driven by a black), which took Bessie to a black hospital where she died. (The local white hospital was no closer.) Bessie Smith simply bled to death as a result of her injuries.
The inflammatory account of Bessie’s death seems to have originated in rumors circulated by disgruntled musicians, who were overheard by John Hammond, one of Bessie’s record producers. Hammond reported the gossip as fact in a magazine article. Years after Bessie’s death, Hammond admitted he had only related hearsay.
Having been at one time a small-town reporter, I considered debunking the myth at the end of The Devil’s Music, but, after much thought – and discussions with Joe, Miche, and the members of my Hudson Valley Professional Playwrights Lab – I arrived at the conclusion that The Devil’s Music is not about the death of Bessie Smith; the show celebrates the amazing life of Bessie Smith, warts and all.