A Storyteller, the Oral Tradition, and the essence of writing.

I need a pick-me-up, folks.  In these dark days of gun-blasted insanity, I need something to remind me of the deep current of goodwill and understanding that runs through most of our lives.  Something comforting.

As a child, I loved bedtime stories … didn’t we all?  Maybe that’s why one place I have turned for comfort is a story.  This one was told by Frank Ratliff, whom I met last March in Clarksdale, MS.

Frank … ‘everybody calls me Rat’ … is the proprietor of the Riverside Hotel.  The Riverside was originally the colored-only hospital in Clarksdale, which is about fifty miles south of Memphis and the epicenter of the Mississippi Delta and thus the incubator of country blues and a great deal of rock ‘n roll and R&B.

The hospital was closed about 1940, a few years before Rat’s mother bought the building

Chairs along the front of the Riverside Hotel

Chairs along the front of the Riverside Hotel

and opened it as a hotel.  The original building had six or seven patient rooms, plus an operating/recovery room.  The great blues singer Bessie Smith was brought here after a car accident on Highway 61 between Memphis and Clarksdale in September, 1937.  It was here that she died.  Rat told me the story … the real story … as we sat in the chairs that front the Riverside.

Storytelling is different from writing in at least one important way:  it includes a storyteller.  A good storyteller can put art into idle conversation, and people like Rat that have the gift are few and far between.  Rat has the soft diction and slow cadence common to his part of the delta, and he understands that there is music in language.

Here’s how he told the story of Bessie Smith’s accident, as nearly as I can transcribe it:

“They say Bessie died because no hospital would take her, but that’s not right at all.  They brought her here, right here, laid her up in the front room of the hospital.  See, what really happened was they had this terrible accident out on the highway.  Right behind them was a car with a doctor, white doctor, and another man.  The doctor took one look at Bessie and knew they were gonna need to get her to a hospital.  He sent his friend off to try to make a telephone call, but they were out in the country.  Only people around there surely didn’t have telephones.  So it took a while to get in touch with the funeral parlor, get the hearse to come out.”  Rat pauses, looks up toward the morning sky, assembling his words,  “See, they didn’t send no ambulance to get a colored person in those days.  Just a hearse so they wouldn’t have to make two trips if the person just happened to die on the way to the hospital.”

Rat reflects for a minute, purses his lips, “After Bessie died, newspaper up North said she was refused at the white hospital, but that makes no sense.”  He punctuates the obvious with a nod.  “No sense at all.  No driver woulda tried to take her to the white hospital in the first place!  Not when the colored hospital was a few blocks away.”  He shakes his head, reflecting on the foolishness of the press story.  “No, she died right here.  But white folks here in Clarksdale were embarrassed by the attention from the newspapers up North.  Maybe that’s why they closed this hospital a couple of years later.  Then coloreds had to go up to Memphis to the hospital … fifty miles or more.  Wasn’t ‘til many years later that the hospital here took colored folks.“

He pauses for a minute, finds a segue, and continues,

“When my daughter was born, they had a colored side of the hospital, but it was full, so they put my wife out in the hall on the white side … first time anyone knew of that happenin’.  Her doctor was a practical man, livin’ as he was here in the South.  He understood his obligation … you know, the oath he took … so he took both colored folks and white folks.  He had one office where he saw his patients, but he had two waiting rooms.  Like I said, he was a practical man.  I always wondered what the white folks woulda thought if they’d known the chair they was sittin’ in had been occupied by colored folks just a few minutes before.”Frank Ratliff, storyteller

He nods his head remembering, then goes on, “Of course, segregation was good for the Riverside.  Only hotel in Clarksdale that would take black people, so all the bluesmen have stopped here.  They used to practice downstairs.  As a child, I’d sit and listen.  Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Ike Turner, Robert Nighthawk.  You name a famous bluesman, and I’ll bet you he’s stayed here.  Yessir.”

That’s the story.  My written version can’t quite catch the tempo, of which Rat is a master.  It would fit pretty well into an 8-bar or 12-bar blues.

There’s a nice video of Rat showing off the Riverside on YouTube.  If you’re anywhere near there, you owe it to yourself to stay there.  For the stories.

3 thoughts on “A Storyteller, the Oral Tradition, and the essence of writing.

  1. It’s true that storytelling gives an immediate, physical experience—auditory, visual, tactile, olfactory, even gustatory—that the written page cannot (unless it is being read aloud); however, the writer can capture, as you have done so nicely here, the words and the feeling and the ambiance in such a way that the reader is returned to that moment that they could not otherwise have shared. Thanks for sharing this one.

  2. I almost never leave a link to my own stuff in others’ blogs, but honestly – one of the joys of story-telling is that no one ever tells the same story in the same way. There’s always a slant, a perspective, a fact or two offered up as lagniappe. I have a feeling you’ll enjoy this tiny story of my trip to Clarksdale as much as I enjoyed this post. Now, I want to go back!

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