THE RIVERSIDE HOTEL, Clarksdale, Mississippi 1992.

In 1937, Bessie Smith, the Empress of the blues, was involved in a serious automobile accident near Clarksdale. She sadly died in the local hospital which these days is a hotel.

The following is an edited extract from Ian Clayton’s acclaimed book, Bringing It All Back Home published by Route :

We drive into Clarksdale with Bessie Smith on our minds. Clarksdale is also the home town of Ike Turner, John Lee Hooker, Earl Hooker. It’s near here where Robert Johnson went to the crossroads to sell his soul. All this in a town that’s round about the same size as Featherstone.

Next morning Rev and I walk right up to the front door of the Riverside Hotel, formerly the Afro-American Hospital, and knock. The door is answered by a polite young black man called Frank.

‘Is it alright to come in please? We’d like to look at the place where Bessie Smith died.’ Frank steps to one side and waves us in. He tells us that Mrs Z. L. Hill is sitting in her chair in the parlour. She likes to meet guys from England.

Mrs Z. L. Hill is probably in her eighties, she is sitting with a crocheted blanket across her knees. Over the back of her chair is a Superman II curtain. Before we can say anything Mrs Hill dives headlong into a sort of mantra.

‘Boys, I knew Ike Turner when he was in his mama’s belly. When he met Tina I made spaghetti for them at three o’clock in the morning when they got home from a gig.’

We sit in awe. Transfixed.

‘It’s all about poverty and slavery. You know about slavery don’t you? Sometimes them mothers went to work and there was no milk in the house.’

‘Did you know Bessie Smith, Mrs Hill?’

‘Bessie Smith. Sure I knew Bessie Smith, she died down that corridor.’ She points a wickedly crooked finger down a dimly lit corridor. ‘Bessie always wore them fine dresses. She sang about when the levee broke and turned all the water loose. All them people was up in the trees yelling and hollering, “Save me, save me!”.’ Then like a corncrake she starts to sing:

 If I could holler like a mountain jack

I’d go up on the river and call my baby back.

The telephone rings. Mrs Hill picks it up and places her gnarled old hand over the mouthpiece. ‘’Scuse me boys, this’ll be John Lee Hooker, he phones me from California regular.’ This is turning into a piece of theatre.

‘Do you boys like tomatoes?’ Mrs Hill puts the phone down. ‘It was just a guy selling tomatoes.’ 

She then bids us to come nearer to her. We do. She whispers. ‘See that key on the nail there. Well that’s the key to the room where Bessie died. Go ahead, take the key and let yourselves in to the room.’ We do as we’re bid. I turn the key in the lock and push open the door. In the room is an old washstand, a stool and a bed. I sit on the bed while Rev takes a photo. It is a sweltering hot day outside. In this room it is freezing. Cold enough to see your breath. Rev and me hesitate to tell each other that we feel ‘spooked’. We lock the door and replace the key on its nail. Mrs Hill insists that we should go look at her porch before we leave. The porch is filled with rotten cane furniture and dying potted geraniums. 

As we turn to come back down the corridor we notice a huge poster of Boy George. Mrs Z. L. Hill shares a similar passion to my grandmother. My gran never missed Top of the Pops when Do You Really Want to Hurt Me was in the charts.

Ian Clayton