Marking the Blues (1998)
By Anne Rochelle
Duncan, Miss. — Rosetta Patton Brown wasn't there when they buried her father, Charley Patton, the first great Delta blues man, in an unmarked grave at the edge of a plantation in Holly Ridge.
“We got lost,” she recalled, still surprised 64 years later.
It was 1934, and Brown was a teenager when her father died after a gig one night—from a heart condition—at age 43. Her mother and stepfather were driving her to the funeral when they lost their way. By the time they made it to the cemetery, the body was covered up.
"I cried so hard," says Brown, now 80 and a widow living among her children and grandchildren in Duncan, a Mississippi Delta town not far from Holly Ridge. She spits a wad of chew into a basket next to her fuzzy-slippered feet. "I wanted to see the body."
Brown didn't miss the second service honoring her father. It was in 1991, when a new headstone was placed at his grave in the corner of the old cemetery, between railroad tracks and a cotton gin.
Rock star John Fogerty didn't miss it either. Nor did Delta blues legend Pops Staples. There were cameras and speeches, and a new fancy headstone decorated with a black-and-white photograph of a young Charley Patton. The carved epitaph reads, "The Voice of the Delta: The foremost performer of early Mississippi blues whose songs became the cornerstones of American music." The stone stands out like a Cadillac in a junkyard; the graves around it are marked with names carved crudely into concrete slabs or wooden crosses, and many of them have fallen over or sunk into the soft, black soil.
Also at the ceremony was the blues fan who made the new marker possible: Skip Henderson, a former social worker and music store owner from New Jersey who founded the Mount Zion Memorial Fund in 1991 to honor deceased blues musicians from the Mississippi Delta.
"It was just going to be Robert Johnson, but there were so many of these blues legends with no headstones," Henderson recalls, explaining how the project got started. He named the fund for the little church in Morgan City where, a few months before the Patton service, he placed the first memorial, which was to Johnson, the blues singer who inspired the Rolling Stones and other rock greats and who claimed he sold his soul to the devil to get his guitar-playing gift.
The Mount Zion Fund has erected eight markers and unveiled the ninth March 14 in Hollandale, for Sam Chatmon. Henderson has at least four others in mind.
"It's a well-intentioned project," says Howard Stovall, executive director of the Blues Foundation in Memphis. "It has focused attention on the fact that even though these musicians are well-known, and their music is still popular, their fame is not reflected in their final resting place."