Bessie Smith & “Blue Melody”


“Blue Melody” is a short story by  Jerome David Salinger, the American writer known for his novel “The Catcher in the Rye”. This short story was first published in the September 1948 issue of Cosmopolitan.

It is the tragic tale of an African-American jazz singer, inspired by the life of Bessie Smith and was originally titled “Needle on a Scratchy Phonograph Record”.

The author had warned that not one word could be modified, but Cosmopolitan changed the title to “Blue Melody” without his consent. After that,  Salinger decided to publish only in The New Yorker.

Here is an excerpt:

During Christmas week Lida Louise began singing nights at her Uncle Charles’s. Rudford and Peggy both got permission, on her opening night, to attend a hygiene lecture at school. So they were there. Black Charles gave them the table nearest the piano and put two bottles of sarsaparilla on it, but they were both too excited to drink. Peggy nervously tapped the mouth of her bottle against her front teeth; Rudford didn’t even pick his bottle up.
Lida Louise sang nights at Black Charles’s for about six months straight. Then, inevitably, Lewis harold Meadows heard her and took her back to Memphis with him. She went without being perceptibly thrilled over the Great Opportunity
The same September that Lida Louise returned to Agersberg, Rudford was sent away to boarding school. Before he left, Black Charles, Lida Louise, Louise’s mother and Peggy gave him a farewell picnic.

The children ate until the ants got all over everything, then Black Charles, keeping out a last sparerib for Peggy and a last wing for Redford, neatly tied all the boxes.
Mrs. Jones stretched out on the grass and went to sleep. Black Charles and Lida Louise began to play casino. …
Rudford lay on his back in the grass and watched great cotton clouds slip through the sky. Peculiarly, he shut his eyes when the sun was momentarily clouded out; opened them when the sun returned scarlet against his eyelids. The trouble was the world might end while his eyes were shut. It did. His world, in any case.
He suddenly heard a brief, terrible, woman’s scream behind him. Jerking his head around, he saw Lida Louise writhing in the grass. She was holding her flat, small stomach. Black Charles was trying awkwardly to turn her toward him, to get her somehow out of the frightening, queer position her body had assumed in its apparent agony. His face was gray.
Rudford and Peggy both reached the terrible spot at the same time.
“What she et? What she done et?” Mrs. Jones demanded hysterically of her brother.
“Nothin’! She done et hardly nothin’,” Black Charles answered, miserable. He was still trying to do something constructive with Lida Louise’s twisting body. Something came to Rudford’s head, something out of his father’s “First Aid for Americans.” Nervously he dropped to his knees and pressed Lida Louise’s abdomen with two fingers. Lida Louise responded with a curdling scream.
“It’s her appendix. She’s busted her appendix. Or it’s gonna bust,” Rudford wildly informed Black Charles. “We gotta get her to a hospital.”

“Take her to Samaritan. ON Benton Street,” Rudford told Black Charles…
“That there Samaritan’s a private hospital,” Black Charles said grinding his gears.
“What’s the difference? Hurry up. Hurry up, Charles,” Rudford said,…
The car finally reached Samaritan Hospital, about a mile and a half away.
“Go in the front way,” Rudford prompted.
Black Charles looked at him. “The front way, boy?” he said.
“The front way, the front way,” Rudford said, and excitedly punched the older man on the knee.
Black Charles obediently semicircled the gravel driveway and pulled up in front of the great white entrance. Rudford jumped out of the car without opening the door, and rushed into the hospital.
At the reception desk a nurse sat with earphones on her head.
“Lida Louise is outside, and she’s dying,” Rudford said to her. “She’s gotta have her appendix out right away.”

“I’m sorry but the rules of the hospital do not permit Negro patients. I’m very sorry.”
Rudford stood for a moment with his mouth open. …then turned, and ran out of the building.
He climbed back into the car, ordering, “Go to Jefferson. Spruce and Fenton.”
Black Charles said nothing. He started up the motor–he had turned it off–and jerked the car to a fast start.
“What’s the matter with Samaritan? That’s a good hospital,” Peggy said stroking Lida Louise’s forehead.
“No, it isn’t,” Rudford said, looking straight ahead, warding off any possible side glance from Black Charles.
The car turned into Fenton Street and pulled up in front of Jefferson Memorial Hospital. Rudford jumped out again, followed this time by Peggy.

“Please. Hurry. We got a lady outside in the car that’s dying. Her appendix is busted or something. Hurry, willya?”
The attendant jumped to his feet, his newspaper falling to the floor.
He followed right on Rudford’d heels.
Rudford opened the front door of the car, and stood away. The attendant looked in at Lida Louise, pale and in agony, lying across the front seat with her head on Black Charles’s head.
“Oh. Well, I’m not a doctor myself. Wait just a second.”
“Help us carry her in,” Rudford yelled.
“Just be a minute,” the attendant said. “I’ll call the resident surgeon.” He walked off, entering the hospital with one hand in his jacket pocket–for poise. …
“Listen. I know you. You don’t wanna take her. Isn’t that right?”
“Wait just a minute, now. I’m callin’ up the resident surgeon…Let go my coat, please. This is a hospital, sonny.”
“Don’t call him up,” Rudford said through his teeth. “Don’t call up anybody.
We’re gonna take her to a good hospital. In Memphis.” Half-blinded, Rudford swung crazily around. “C’mon, Peggy.”
But Peggy stood some ground, for a moment. Shaking violently, she addressed everybody in the reception lobby: “Damn you! Damn you all!”
Then she ran after Rudford.
The car started up again. But it never reached Memphis. Not even halfway to Memphis.
It was like this: Lida Louise’s head was on Rudford’s lap. So long as the car kept moving, her eyes were shut.
Then abruptly, for the first time, Black Charles stopped for a red light. While the car was motionless, Lida Louise opened her eyes and looked up at Rudford.
“Endicott?” she said.
The boy looked down at her and answered, almost at the top of his voice, “I’m right here, Honey!”
Lida Louise smiled, closed her eyes, and died.

J. D. Salinger

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