On September 26, 1937, Smith was critically injured in a car accident while traveling along U.S. Route 61 between Memphis, Tennessee, and Clarksdale, Mississippi. Her lover, Richard Morgan, was driving and, probably mesmerized by the long stretch of straight road, misjudged the speed of a slow-moving truck ahead of him. Tire marks at the scene suggested that Morgan tried to avoid the truck by driving around its left side, but he hit the rear of the truck side-on at high speed. The tailgate of the truck sheared off the wooden roof of Smith’s old Packard. Smith, who was in the passenger seat, probably with her right arm or elbow out the window, took the full brunt of the impact. Morgan escaped without injuries.
Smith’s funeral was held in Philadelphia a little over a week later on October 4, 1937. Her body was originally laid out at Upshur’s funeral home. As word of her death spread through Philadelphia’s black community, the body had to be moved to the O.V. Catto Elks Lodge to accommodate the estimated 10,000 mourners who filed past her coffin on Sunday, October 3. Contemporary newspapers reported that her funeral was attended by about seven thousand people. Far fewer mourners attended the burial at Mount Lawn Cemetery, in nearbySharon Hill. [Her estranged husband Jack] Gee thwarted all efforts to purchase a stone for his estranged wife, once or twice pocketing money raised for that purpose.
The grave remained unmarked until August 7, 1970, when a tombstone—paid for by singer Janis Joplin and Juanita Green, who as a child had done housework for Smith—was erected.
You can here the song here: http://blip.fm/listen/Dory+Previn::A+Stone+For+Bessie+Smith
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It was a fateful road trip to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1997 that The Killer Blues Headstone Project was born. On his way through Chicago Steve decided to stop at a couple of cemetaries in the Chicago area known for the resting place of several blues artists he knew and loved. “I wanted to pay my respects to those that had enriched my life with their music” Salter stated. He was greatly shocked to find that many had no marker on their grave. It was at that point he decided to do something about it. He had already begun compiling a list of birth and death dates of blues artists and researching where they were buried. He then began in earnest visiting their graves to see if they had a marker. Although he found that some did, many more did not. Steve photographed those that did which later became photos in his calendar.
I’d like to thank Steve Salter for his project to honor blues musicians, Janis Joplin, Juanita Green and Dory Previn for caring about a woman who was once known as the Empress of Blues and Peoria Dave for turning me on to the Killer Blues project.
You can hear Dave at 90.1fm (WEFT) on Tuesday from 11:30am-2pm or listen live at weft.org.