Road Trip: Post #5–Bessie Smith and Zee



Blues great Bessie Smith died in 1937 in  Clarksdale, Mississipi at the hospital for African Americans, now the Riverside Hotel.  After some rough years, The Empress of the Blues was on a rebound.

That is until her boyfriend came up too close on a slow moving truck. He passed the truck on the left, severing Bessie’s right arm, which was resting out the window.

I’m not a Bessie Smith expert. In fact, I knew little about her.

Yet something told me to visit the Riverside Hotel.

Riverside Hotel

A guy from Canada on a Delta Blues pilgrimage strummed his guitar on the porch.

“Go in,” he said.  “I think Zee’s around.”

We walked through the front door.  Zee met us. “I’m getting ready for guests.”

I got the feeling a tour was not in our cards.

“Oh,” I said. “I wanted to see the place where Bessie Smith died.”


My tone or my expression must have softened her. “Right there,” she said, motioning to the room behind me.  “That’s where Bessie passed.  She bled out.”

Bessie's Room

Then Zee pointed to a long hallway. “Their footsteps are on those floors.  Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke, Ike Tuner, John Lee Hooker, all the greats.”

In the 1940s, Zee’s grandma bought the hospital and turned it into the Riverside Hotel, a men’s only  hotel.


“Grandmama didn’t put up with anything from anybody. IkeTurner was a bad boy, but he behaved for Grandmama.”

Zee’s father, Frank “Rat” Ratcliff,  took over the management of the hotel after his mother. He died last spring.

Now Zelina Ratcliff is the proprietress.

“Do you ever feel the spirits of the blues artists who stayed here?” I asked her.

“Others do. I just see my daddy.” Zee smiled. ” Everywhere.”

“After my dad died, ” I said, “I felt  I was channeling him. Like part of him had become me.  But then it faded, some. Don’t lose that connection as your grief subsides.”

“Oh, I won’t.” Zee shook her head. “Never.”

By now Cliff had stepped back outside to chat with the guy from Canada.

Zee and I talked about losing parents, loving parents.

I could have talked to her for hours.

But she had work to do.

I took her picture.  I hugged her goodbye.

“Thank you,” I said. “So much.”


Read more about the history of the hotel here.

The Riverside Hotel website. Call if you want a reservation!

Take a tour of the hotel with Zee’s dad, Rat.

And listen to Bessie:


11 responses »

  1. Ms. Younger,
    I am fascinated by your commentary of Bessie Smith. I am in the process of obtaining approval of a symposium revolving around the life and death of Bessie Smith. Would you be interested in writing a proposal and maybe some future writing on this subject. We have a deadline and you would be compensated of course. Again great story.

      • Ms. Younger,
        The initial stage involves writing a proposal.
        First of all thanks for your immediate response. Let me inform you what we are up against. I applied for a $1500 grant to do a symposium on Bessie Smith. In order to obtain the grant, I would have to produce a proposal. And since you somewhat knowledgeable on this subject, I was wondering if you could generate a proposal by October 29. These are the guidelines that the committee suggested.
        It should be somewhere in the range of six to ten pages.
        1) The topic and why you are looking to write on it
        2) A good, thorough discussion of the scholarship/historiography on the topic. (What has been written about Bessie Smith and her death? How have historians approached this topic? What conclusions have they drawn? Where will your work fit into and/or challenge current historiography?)
        3) Source materials (What will be your main primary sources and why? What are the strengths of these sources? Potential weaknesses? Where are these resources housed and how will you get access to them?),
        4) Chapter Outline (4 at the most) I wanted to do chapter from her driver, one from the doctor on scene, one from the truck driver, one from the doctors buddy, one from the couple driving in the car, one from each ambulance driver, one from the homeowner, etc. But it may not be enough information and it could be repetitive.
        5) Annotated Bibliography
        Dr. Younger, please consider coming on board because you would be a great attribute. Let me know your cost.
        Thanks for your valuable time,

      • Hi Mike,

        Thanks but no thanks. I’m really not an expert on Bessie Smith (as my posts states). Good luck with the project. Let me now how it all turns out!


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