Friday, June 4, 2010

Bessie Smith's Grave

The 1920's blues singer Bessie Smith's famous song, "Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer," (Available on The Essential Bessie Smith)  is most appropriate for this posting as pork products have become increasingly popular in Philadelphia and this week marks the beginning of Philly Beer Week 2010.

Smith is buried along the outer edge of woodsy suburban Mount Lawn Cemetery in Darby, PA (on the southwest border of Philadelphia). Smith, known as the "Empress of the Blues," was a hero of Janis Joplin. After Smith's death in 1937 (the result of a high-speed automobile accident), her grave remained unmarked for a variety of reasons. In 1970, Janis Joplin had the tombstone you see here carved and placed on Smith's grave.

In 2002, my brother wanted to see the grave, which was near my house. We drove into the cemetery one day and circled around to the left where he thought the grave was. I parked my car and we both got out to begin our search. Immediately, four armed police helicopters appeared in circular formation above us, locked in the most threatening nose-down position you can imagine! I said to my brother, "You go look for the grave, I'll wait under the car."

The last time such a thing happened to me was when I was nipping a few flowers off Elizabeth Taylor's hedges outside her Beverly Hills home as a souvenir for my mom. But then that was only one helicopter. Bessie Smith warrants four? I realize that Smith was so popular in her heyday that 10,000 people came to her funeral, but why so much security now, 50 years later?

After bravely jumping in my car and speeding off, my brother and I found out that neither we nor Bessie Smith were the reason for the helicopters. The police were conducting a manhunt for two kidnappers who'd escaped into the woods bordering the cemetery. I guess they realized we were not those two guys and just let us drive off.