Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Blind Willie Johnson: Revelations In the Dark

by Michael Corcoran - January 8, 2016 

Folks have been looking for Blind Willie Johnson since his “John The Revelator” jumped out of Harry Smith’s monumental Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952 like a Pentecostal preacher. “Well, who’s that writin’?,” Blind Willie called out in a fog-cutter bass, with his amen queen Willie B. Harris responding, “John The Revelator.” The repetition of those dissimilar, tent revival voices created a rhythm of dignified hardship, a struggle redeemed by faith. Thumb-picked guitar lines danced around the rough/smooth tension as the devil slid into the back pew.

This 1930 gospel recording about the Apostle who wrote the Book of Revelation was as lowdown dirty and hoppin’ as any blues or hillbilly number on Smith’s six-disc collection. Blind Willie didn’t even have to play any bottleneck guitar, which would become his signature on later reissues featuring “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” “Mother’s Children Have A Hard Time,” “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning,” “God Moves On The Water” and others.

Johnson’s initial popularity on Columbia’s 14000-D “race records” series was such that he was one of the only gospel blues artists whose 78s were reissued during the Depression (four sides on Vocalion in 1935). He recorded 18 months before the debut of the more celebrated Delta blues icon Charley Patton and perfected a slide guitar style with open D tuning that influenced everyone from Robert Johnson and Elmore James to Jimmy Page and Jack White. Vocally, you can be sure Patton understudy Chester Burnett took notice of Johnson’s wolf-like howl.

In just three years, Blind Willie Johnson produced a significant body of work that transports the listener from ancient Africa to modern times. And yet by the release of Harry Smith’s gateway drug, almost nothing was known of “the other Blind Willie” (not McTell) except that he recorded for Columbia Records from 1927 through1930. There were 30 tracks total, with ten each recorded in Dallas, New Orleans and Atlanta.

Just as the Book of Revelation was written on a scroll fastened by seven seals, Blind Willie’s story was one that begged to be unlocked. The first to try was 24-year-old Samuel Charters (1929-2015), who set out for Texas in 1953 to see what he could find about two bluesmen named Johnson, who made their first records there. But while the icy trail of Robert Johnson, who recorded in San Antonio in 1936 and Dallas the next year, made even hellhounds call it a day, Charters got lucky with the gospel Johnson. Sam and his wife Ann followed leads from Dallas to Beaumont, where they eventually met Blind Willie’s widow, Angeline Johnson.

The Charters-produced 1957 album Blind Willie Johnson: His Story (Folkways) reissued more of Johnson’s music, including “If I Had My Way, I’d Tear The Building Down,” which the Grateful Dead called “Samson And Delilah” when they recorded it on 1977’s Terrapin Station. Side one concentrated on Johnson’s biography, with spoken remembrances from people who knew Blind Willie, most prominently Angeline.

Rather than detail what was wrong in some of those eyewitness reports, let’s tell you what we now know to be certain about Blind Willie Johnson, who died in Beaumont at age 48 on September 18, 1945. The truth starts with a 1918 WWI draft registration card which popped up on around 2007. The card’s 21-year-old Willie Johnson lived in Houston’s Fourth Ward, in the red light district nicknamed “The Reservation,” which seemed strange for a gospel musician. But my research concludes that this Willie Johnson, blind, was, indeed, the Blind Willie Johnson who would bring a previously unheard intensity to music on six classics of gospel blues recorded on his first day ever in a studio.

We know draft card Willie is our guy because the 1935 Temple City Directory lists a “Willie Johnson, musician” living at the same 308 S. Fifth St. address as four other children of the man listed as his father in 1918. When Willie Johnson and Willie B. Harris had a daughter, Sam Faye, in 1931, he said he was born in Temple. His death certificate incorrectly lists his place of birth as Independence, Texas.

Blind Willie’s parents were Dock Johnson and Mary King, married May 2, 1894 in Meridian, Texas, the town closest to the ranch where famed folklorist John A. Lomax grew up. The Johnsons moved about 50 miles south, to Bell County, before Willie Johnson was born in January 1897 in Pendleton. That year, Lomax was living in Austin, where he would graduate from the University of Texas in June. But the Lomax name would be forever connected to Blind Willie Johnson in 1977, when John’s son Alan Lomax selected Willie’s wordless symphony of loneliness, “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground,” to be placed on the Voyager I flying time capsule that is now 13 billion miles away. The otherworldly music of Blind Willie Johnson is on its way home.

A Haunting Masterpiece

Blind Willie sang in three distinctive voices: the gruff false bass, the soulful natural tenor and through his expressive slide guitar, which often finished verses for him. They were the father, the son and the Holy Ghost of his music. Johnson was a one-man Holy Trinity on “Dark Was The Night,” as his guitar preached and his congregation hummed in response.

“That record just scared the hell out of me,” Memphis record producer Jim Dickinson said in 2003. He first heard “Dark Was The Night” in 1960 as a freshman at Baylor University, with the hums and slurs from the library headphones haunting himwith a sadness and a strength he said he never really got over. More than 55 years later, his son Luther Dickinson is one of the artists on God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson,an album of covers by such admirers as Tom Waits, Sinead O’Connor, Lucinda Williams and many more. His father had told him about Blind Willie, of course, but Luther truly discovered the slide master when he delved into the roots of nascent North Mississippi bluesman Fred McDowell. “It’s so of the earth, but still sounds modern to my ear,” Luther Dickinson says of Johnson’s gospel blues.

“He’s one of only a handful of musicians who really feel like sacred music to me,” says guitarist Derek Trucks, who performs “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning” with Susan Tedeschi on God Don’t Never Change.

There are no words in Blind Willie’s “Dark Was The Night,” but there are lyrics to the Baptist hymn where it originated. It’s about the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus was arrested and tormented on the night before the crucifixion. “Dark was the night and cold was the ground/On which the Lord was laid/His sweat like drops of blood ran down/In agony He prayed,” wrote Thomas Haweis in 1792.blindwilliedark

It’s a song about the Passion and Blind Willie nailed it on the first take on December 3, 1927 in Dallas. It’s a one-of-a-kind recording that’s set a mood in several films, first in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1964 Italian classic The Gospel According To St. Matthew. Basing his soundtrack of Paris, Texas on “Dark,” Ry Cooder called it “the most soulful, transcendent piece in all of American music.”

You have to wonder what Columbia’s Frank B. Walker, who produced the Dallas sessions, might have been thinking when this fully-formed blind artist came in out of nowhere to lay down that pure, primal sound. Even though Walker had signed and produced blues superstar Bessie Smith in 1923, he probably wasn’t ready for Blind Willie’s wails and moans in that voice from the depths.

An overlooked record business giant, Walker also signed great hillbilly acts like Riley Puckett, Charlie Poole and Gid Tanner and organized 1928’s influential “Johnson City Sessions” in Tennessee. His title was A&R president, but he was really in the D&S business, with the discovery and signing of Hank Williams to MGM in 1947 putting Walker’s resume in bold.

The East Coast record men, who made frequent trips to Dallas, Memphis, New Orleans and Atlanta between 1927 and 1930, sometimes set up makeshift studios in hotels. But because Walker and his engineer (“Freiberg” on label notes) were using the new Viva-Tonal! electrical recording process, those first sessions probably took place in the friendly confines of the Columbia Records complex, which covered three storefronts (2000- 2004) on North Lamar St. in Dallas’ West End.

Other acts who recorded at that first Dallas session, which went from December 2-6, 1927 were Washington Phillips (“Denomination Blues”), Lillian Glinn, backed by Willie Tyson on piano, mandolinist Coley Jones and the Dallas String Band, blues singers William McCoy, Hattie Hudson and Gertrude Perkins, plus Billiken Johnson, whose popular Deep Ellum act consisted of train impersonations (“Interurban Blues”) and other sound effects. Walker told Mike Seeger in 1962 that the acts auditioned in the morning, rehearsed in the afternoon and recorded in the evening.

Johnson was not the first gospel singer to play slide guitar on record. He was beaten to the studio by a year and a half by Pittsburgh preacher Edward W. Clayborn. For blues, you can go back to November 1923, when Louisville’s Sylvester Weaver was the first to record with slide guitar for OKeh. Those guys were crafty and talented, but when Blind Willie started playing slide it’s like he invented the dunk. He paired gifts for improvisation and control, the melody and the rhythm, in a way that’s unsurpassed. “Anybody who’s ever played the bottleneck guitar with some degree of accomplishment is quoting Blind Willie to this day,” said Austin slide guitarist Steve James.

Johnson grew up one county over from Blind Lemon Jefferson and they often played on opposite street corners in Hearne, according to Adam Booker, the Brenham preacher interviewed by Charters in 1955. Yet Blind Willie sounds little like the first national star of country blues. They played in the same general genre, with religious vs. secular lyrics being the core difference, but had their own styles. Jefferson didn’t play the slide. And Johnson didn’t make the people dance like Blind Lemon did.

Together and apart, these two black, blind icons from Central Texas led the way in the country blues guitar field (religion optional). They taught, through example, Reverend Gary B. Davis and Mance Lipscomb, who each brought songs from the Blind Willie Johnson canon to the ‘60s folk revival.

Johnson & Johnson, Gospel And Blues

Jefferson and Johnson also inspired Robert Johnson, who laid out the blueprint for Chicago blues and its offspring in November 1936 at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio. Johnson’s debut session, on the 23rd, produced eight tracks for Vocalion Records, including “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Ramblin’ On My Mind,” “Come On In My Kitchen” and “Terraplane Blues.” There’s your Big Bang.

Though not as influential, you can put the artistic results of Blind Willie Johnson’s December 3, 1927 session in the same league of Best Studio Days Ever – and it was nine years earlier! Blind Willie Johnson’s six tracks included “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed” (covered by Bob Dylan as “In My Time Of Dying” in his 1962 debut LP), “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” (Led Zeppelin), “Mother’s Children Have A Hard Time” (Eric Clapton) and “If I Had My Way” (Peter, Paul & Mary’s debut LP).

Even though his playing, always on a Stella guitar, inspired a host of Delta blues men, Blind Willie refused to sing the blues, that style of music preferred by collectors and historians. Unlike the “songsters” who mixed blues and gospel, Johnson sang only religious songs, which explains a big part of his relative obscurity. His raspy evangelical bark and dramatic guitar were designed to draw in milling, mulling masses on street corners, not to charm casual roots rock fans decades later.

But he had his time. When Willie Johnson was booked for the December 1928 sessions for Columbia, he had already sold an average of 15,000 copies of his first three 78s (at 75 cents each) and so he was treated with an earner’s respect. He had a car and driver and the label put him and Willie B. up at the Delmonico Hotel at 302 N. Central Avenue in Deep Ellum.

The couple proved to be vocal soulmates on four tracks recorded on December 5, 1928, including “Jesus Is Coming Soon” (about the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic) and “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning.” The Columbia recording logs also list two tracks, unnamed and unreleased, as being by “Blind Texas Marlin” and the speculation was that Blind Texas Marlin was Blind Willie Johnson, singing some blues on the side. We’ll never know. The notes and papers of Frank Buckley Walker disappeared, he said in the interview with Seeger. A big chunk of music history gone. Columbia lost or threw away the Blind Willie Johnson masters long ago and all his CD reissues were made by digitizing 78 RPM records loaned by collectors.

The search goes on, but what we still don’t know about Blind Willie Johnson could sink the Titanic. The mystery has made him more spirit than mortal, a folk hero.

The most legendary story about Blind Willie, which Angeline told to Charters in 1955, was that he was blinded by a stepmother who “throwed lye water in Willie’s face and put his eyes out.” Angeline said Willie’s mother had died when he was a boy and his father remarried.

Dock Johnson, indeed, took a new wife, Catherine Garrett, in June 1908. But in the 1911 Temple Directory, Dock Johnson was living with a wife named Mary, before going back to Catherine two years later.

That may have something to do with the blinding of Willie Johnson. The years match with the draft card if Willie became blind at age 13 (instead of 13 years earlier–there’s some ambiguity). That would be 1910, the census year Willie Johnson was not living in Temple with father Dock, Catherine and his brothers and sisters Wallace, Carl, Robert and Mary (who they called Jettie.) Did he stay with a relative? Did Dock break up with Catherine and go back to Willie’s mother because of the blinding, or the infidelity and the beating that, according to Angeline, led to it?

By 1915, everything seemed patched up, as Willie Johnson was listed as living with Dock and Catherine at 316 W. Avenue D in Temple, just 100 yards from the train depot. He wouldn’t stay long.

He was 18 and ready to make some money on the streets of Texas with a pocket knife, a tin cup and beat-up old guitar.

“Where the Cotton South Meets the Cattle West”

Temple is named after Bernard Temple, who was chief engineer of the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe Railway when the town was formed in 1881 out of 200 acres of farmland the railroad had purchased. It became even more of a railroad town when the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railway (“the Katy”) laid tracks through Temple in 1882. The Santa Fe had 55 miles of track in Bell County and went up to Fort Worth and down to Galveston, while the Katy was the main route between Dallas and San Antonio. Ragtime king Scott Joplin, from Texarkana, lived circa 1895 in Temple, where he wrote and published his first sheet music pieces on a commission from the MK&T. The railroads made Temple an urban hub between Waco and Austin.

The town was also in cotton country, on the western border of the Black Waxy Prairie, so-nicknamed because of the dark and sticky soil. The crop was so identified with Bell County that the semi-pro baseball team of 1905-1907 was called the Temple Boll Weevils, after the infestation of the 1890s.

Mississippi has its Delta and in Texas the blues cradle was the basin lands between the Brazos and Trinity Rivers, east of Dallas and north of Houston. Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas (Big Sandy), Blind Lemon Jefferson (Wortham), Texas Alexander (Jewett), Lillian Glinn (Hillsboro), Lightnin’ Hopkins (Centerville), Frankie Lee Sims (Marshall) and Mance Lipscomb (Navasota) all came from that area, as did gospel acts The Soul Stirrers (Trinity), F.W. McGee (Hillsboro) and Wash Phillips (Simsboro).

The busy season for corner singers was when the cotton came in and the streets were full of folks ready to party. Such money-making opportunities took Johnson to Hearne, Marlin, Brenham and Navasota, as well as the big cities. Because he was blind, he rode the train at reduced fare, if he had to pay at all. “Play us that ‘Titanic’ song!” was probably enough to carry Blind Willie wherever he wanted to go.

Blind Willie’s first marriage took him to Houston in 1917, if later census numbers are correct. According to the 1930 census, the musician said he was married at age 20 and divorced. That’s approximately when the draft card said he was living in Houston, where there was plenty of work for a musician in the “anything goes” district where Johnson lived. Usually it was playing in whorehouses or medicine shows, but after the 1915 Panama Pacific Expo in San Francisco, Hawaiian steel guitar was all the rage, with the Victor label releasing 140 Hawaiian records in 1916 alone. It’s quite possible Blind Willie made money for a spell with his guitar in his lap, but his slide playing on record is more percussive, attacking, than the Island style.

Songster Mance Lipscomb (1895- 1976), who enjoyed a late-life discovery by the hippie/folk crowd thanks to music historian Mack McCormick and Arhoolie Records, recalled seeing Johnson play in front of Tex’s Radio Shop in Navasota, 90 miles northwest of Houston, as early as 1916. “He just had people from here to the highway. Jes’ hunnuds a people standing right on the streets,” Lipscomb said in his oral autobiography I Say Me For a Parable. “White and black. Old colored folks and young ones as well. Listenin’ at his voice.” Lipscomb said Johnson walked with a stick and traveled with a darker-skinned blind man. That was most likely Madkin Butler.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

– The Book of Genesis

The dominant Texas preacher of the era was John L. “Sin Killer” Griffin, who toured all over the state and possessed, according to a Houston newspaper in 1911, a voice with the power of “thunder’s sullen roar.” But Blind Willie had a more direct model for his pulpit-shaking bellow in the singing preacher they called Blind Butler (1873- 1936). Madkin Butler showed the kid, 24 years his junior, how to make his voice heard above a crowd by flipping it inside out with authority. Butler was most likely the writer of “God Moves On The Water,” one of Blind Willie’s greatest recordings, which Waco folklorist Dorothy Scarborough published in 1919’s From A Southern Porch folklore collection. Lipscomb recalled a night in Houston when he sang “Titanic,” as he called “God Moves,” with Ophelia Butler, who he was told by McCormick, was the widow of the man who wrote it.

A singer and fiddle player who was never recorded that we know of, Madkin Butler was also probably the “blind singer from Hearne” who taught John A. Lomax “Boll Weevil” in 1909. Willie B. Harris, who grew up in Franklin, next to Hearne, said Blind Butler was the most highly regarded singer in Robertson County.

Harris talked about the Butler/Johnson mentorship when she was interviewed in the ‘70s by Dallas artist and blues collector Dan Williams. “She told me they played music on the train together,” Williams recalled.

As many have done before and since, Williams trekked to Marlin to find out whatever he could about that mysterious, intense, Blind Willie Johnson. “I approached a group of elderly black people near the town square and one of them said he was related to Blind Willie’s ex-wife, the one who sang on his records, and I thought I was going to meet Angeline Johnson,” Williams recalled in 2003. “Nobody knew anything about a Willie B. Harris.”

After hearing Harris sing along to Blind Willie’s recording of “Church I’m Fully Saved Today,” from their final session in Atlanta on April 20, 1930, Williams was sure Harris was the duet partner. “She talked about meeting Blind Willie McTell in Atlanta and I did some research and found out that, sure enough, McTell recorded at the same sessions,” said Williams.

Charters inaccurately credited Angeline Johnson as the female background singer in his chapter on Blind Willie in 1959’s seminal The Country Blues, but made the correction, crediting Harris, in the liner notes for a 1993 CD reissue for Sony Legacy. Still, it’s possible that the more flamboyant Angeline was Willie’s unidentified backup singer at the sessions in New Orleans in December 1929 that produced the enduring “Let Your Light Shine On Me,” the first song Johnson recorded in standard guitar tuning. Columbia’s Walker set up a session in Dallas a week earlier, but Blind Willie chose to record in New Orleans, so he was probably living in the closer city of Beaumont as early as 1929, which is what Angeline had been saying.

When you add up all the dates and testimony, it’s very possible that Johnson was “married” to both Angeline in Beaumont and Willie B. in Marlin at the same time. There is no official record of those marriages, aside from newborn daughter Sam Faye listed as legitimate in Marlin in 1931, but couples “jumping the broom” together was a common matrimonial procedure for poor folks back then. Because of a December 2, 1932 entry in the San Antonio Register black newspaper, we do know Willie was married to a Mary Brown for a spell. Then, the 1937 Corpus Christi City Directory has Willie Johnson, musician, living there with wife Annie (as Angeline was known by some). That makes sense because of what McCormick said in 2003: “(Blind Willie) left memories in Corpus Christi during WWII when there was a fear about Nazi submarines prowling the Gulf of Mexico. Someone must have told him submarines often listened to radio stations to triangulate their position. He went on the air with new verses to one of his songs, probably ‘God Moves On The Water’ about the Titanic, offering grace to his audience, then followed with a dire warning to the crew of any listening U-boat with ‘Can’t Nobody Hide From God.’”

Blind Willie and Angeline moved to Beaumont for good in the early ‘40s, when the gospel singer found a fan in a circus band leader with a famous trumpet-playing son. “Harry James’ father Everett spoke very highly of Blind Willie Johnson,” said McCormick, who began his musicology career as a jazz fanatic. It’s not known if Johnson ever sat in with the Mighty Haag Circus Band led by Everett James, but the possibility is mind-blowing.

In the 1945 Beaumont City Directory Johnson is listed as a Reverend living at The House of Prayer at 1440 Forest. According to his death certificate later that year, Johnson died from malarial fever, with syphilis and blindness as contributing factors.

But Angeline Johnson painted an even bleaker picture of Willie Johnson’s final days. She told Charters that her husband died from pneumonia after sleeping on wet newspapers the night after a fire. His life could’ve been saved, she said, except he was refused service at the hospital because he was black and blind. But such a scenario was “highly unlikely…,” said McCormick, who had worked in a Houston emergency room in the Jim Crow era of legalized discrimination. “He would not have been turned away.”

The 1440 Forest Avenue house stood until 1970, when it was torn down to make room for I-10.

The “malarial fever” cause of death seemed strange for East Texas and led many to believe Angeline Johnson’s pneumonia story. But while spending 2010 researching the life of Blind Willie Johnson, recent University of Texas graduate Shane Ford came upon an interesting bit of medical information. In 1917, it was discovered that injecting malaria into patients with degenerative syphilis “could halt the progression of general paresis.” The fever could sometimes kill the syphilis bacteria. This practice was used in the ‘30s and ‘40s, until penicillin was mass-produced in the late ‘40s. The downside was that about 20% of those treated died from malarial fever.

Marlin And Marriages

Between his years in Temple and Beaumont, there was Marlin, perhaps the town most connected to Blind Willie this many years later. Wood Street brought the street corner gospel singer to the town 37 miles east of Temple. With its wooden sidewalks, prostitutes hanging out of windows and music coming out of every doorway, Wood Street of the ‘20s and ‘30s featured the most happening street scene in black Central Texas. Marlin’s a nothing town today, but during the first half of the 20th Century, after hot mineral water with reputed healing powers was discovered and bathhouses built, it was a destination with a booming economy. The New York Giants held spring training in Marlin from 1908 through 1918 and Conrad Hilton built the nine-story Falls Hotel there in 1929. There were plenty of jobs for black folks and on Saturday night, Wood Street was hopping.

Musicians played all up and down the street, according to a 94-year-old James Truesdale in 2010. “He could make that guitar talk to you,” the Lott native said of Blind Willie, describing a scene of people “falling out and hollerin’” to Johnson’s gospel music. Two blocks from the sin of Wood Street was the Falls Country Baptist Association, where Truesdale said Johnson and Butler often played in a makeshift venue called the Soul Station.

When she met her future husband, Willie B. Harris worked as a bathhouse attendant and belonged to the Power House Church of God In Christ. She told Williams that she and Blind Willie began performing together at the Pentecostal church. No doubt she’d dragged him with her with her, because Blind Willie has mainly been associated with the Baptist Church.

The last known venue of a Blind Willie Johnson concert still standing is the New Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church in Shiner, Texas. Johnson came to Shiner from San Antonio in October 1933 to play the 100-capacity church for 10 cents a ticket. “Reserved seating for white people” it said in the newspaper. It’s conceivable Blind Willie had hundreds of shows like this after making his final recordings in April 1930. Playing music live was the only way he had to make a living since his recordings were “non-royalty,” according to Columbia session cards.

Also recently found is a clipping that describes the crowd at New York City’s Hippodrome becoming “deathlike” quiet while Blind Willie Johnson sang “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” circa 1938. In a 1940 interview with John A. Lomax, Blind Willie McTell said he and the other Blind Willie had been touring “from Maine to Mobile.” McTell paid homage to his old friend when he cut “Motherless Children” for Atlantic in 1949. That’s how long it took for word of Johnson’s death to reach many of those who knew him, one reason earlier biographies had him dying in ’49, not ’45.

There’s been only one photo found of Willie Johnson, wearing a suit and sitting at a piano with his guitar. His left pinkie appears to be straightened by a glass or steel cylinder, which is how Angeline’s brother, Brenham-raised blues guitarist L.C. Robinson, said Johnson played slide. “He used to come stay with us, two, three nights, and he’d sit there and play that guitar, religious songs,” Robinson told Living Blues in 1975 about his brother-in-law. “I was watching him with that bottle on there and started playing that way, too.”

But bluesman Thomas Shaw (1908-1977) told the magazine in 1972 that Blind Willie slid a pocketknife over the strings to play slide. “Willie lived in Temple and we’d go down there to play for the country dances and school openings and all and I’d stay with him,” said Shaw. “I learned that ‘Just Can’t Keep From Cryin’ from him but I learned to pick it ’cause I didn’t like the knife on it.”

Listening to Johnson fretting strings and playing rhythm along with his slide, it seems unlikely he played with a knife in the studio, but it could’ve been a cool street corner trick.

The Sounds Of Earth In Outer Space

Blind Willie’s songs were about the love of Jesus and the hope of salvation, with a touch of Old Testament vengeance. With his soul-tortured delivery, there’s a depth to the material not often heard in the records Brunswick, Columbia, Paramount and Victor put out in the “race records” decade ushered in by Mamie Smith’s sensational 1920 hit “Crazy Blues.”

But how many of those songs did he write? How many were adapted from public domain sources such as religious hymns and old “Negro spirituals”? It’s certainly a question to be determined once an estate for Blind Willie Johnson is finally established.

Precedents for “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” “Motherless Children,” “Soul Of A Man” and the topical songs “Jesus Is Coming” and “When The War Is On” haven’t been found, so they can be classified as original compositions. But the majority of Johnson’s 29 recorded songs (he cut “You’ll Need Somebody On Your Bond” twice) came from other sources. According to Max Haymes’ “Roots of Blind Willie Johnson” research, the singer took three songs from the 1923 recordings of the Wiseman Sextette and covered T.E. Weems on “If I Had My Way,” Arizona Dranes on “Bye And Bye, I’m Going To See the King” and Blind Joe Taggart’s “Take Your Burden To The Lord.” But entertainment attorney William Krasilovsky said in 2003 that a Blind Willie estate could earn money by copyrighting his arrangements. “Does the work have distinctive fingerprints of originality that qualify for a new derivative copyright of public domain material?” he asked, reading from a copyright law book.

“Distinctive fingerprints” could be the title of a Blind Willie Johnson biography. In most cases, however, Johnson’s fingers left the slightest forensic evidence behind, which makes what they did with a guitar, under that powerful voice, all that matters. The music’s so supercharged with self-expression that the truth is right there for all to hear.

That’s why “Dark Was The Night” was chosen for the Golden Record aboard Voyager 1, which continues its journey to the galaxy’s back yard. The interstellar space probe left the solar system in 2012 and continues its mission to find intelligent life in other planetary systems.

Should aliens happen upon the spacecraft and, with the record player provided, listen to that eerie, moaning, steel-sliding memorial to the Crucifixion, they will know that we are a spiritual people, that we hurt and we heal, that we do indeed have souls that live long after we’re buried.

THANKS: To all the searchers, especially Sam and Ann Charters, Dan Williams, Jeffrey Gaskill, Michael Hall, D.N. Blakey, Mack McCormick, Shane Ford and Anna Obek, whose hours saved me days.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Sat - Sep 8 - Help Restore Graveyard of Memphis Music Legend

The Campaign to Memorialize Charlie Burse - "The Ukulele Kid"

DeWayne Moore - MZMF Director
Bill Pichette - Project Investigator

At NINE a.m. on September 8, 2018, the Mt Zion Memorial Fund's Memphis affiliate Bill Pichette will be rehabilitating Rose Hill Cemetery, the historic African American cemetery where Memphis Jug Band legend Charlie Burse lies in an unmarked grave. He is working through Grace St. Luke Chruch's outreach program, the MIFA (Memphis Inter-Faith Association), Cane Creek MB Church as well as other area churches on a Push to improve the Grounds. This volunteer event will take place, once again, on Saturday, September 8 at 1341 Rose Hill Road in Memphis starting at NINE a.m. We would like to invite everyone to come down and feel the connection to these roots of the Memphis music tree. Please bring instruments to entertain the volunteers and feel free to volunteer to get some of this sacred dirt on your hands. See you there!

Burse Biography by Arlo Leach 

In a career spanning 40 years, Charlie Burse moved from Sheffield, Alabama to Jackson, Mississippi, to Memphis; from ukulele to guitar to mandolin; from jug band to fingerstyle blues to jazzy pop; and from busking on Beale Street to parties for Boss Crump to recording sessions at Sun Studios.

His best-known work was with the Memphis Jug Band, where he was the second longest serving member after its founder, Will Shade. He made significant contributions to some of the Memphis Jug Band's best-known songs, from his guitar riffs on "Cocaine Habit" and "You May Leave" to his lead vocals on "Bottle It Up and Go" and "Stealin' Stealin'" -- a song that has been covered by Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, the Grateful Dead, and countless modern jug, bluegrass and old-time bands.

Charlie Burse 
To Shade's quiet wit and behind the scenes organizing, Burse was the perfect complement: boisterous and energetic, with a punchy resonator tenor guitar, a voice that could cut through a busy market or hotel lobby, and hip gyrations that would influence Elvis. He spoiled more than one recording by stomping too hard on the studio floor, and he earned a reputation as a smart mouth at a time when black men were expected to be deferential. Yet he also had a serious side, holding a day job as a carpenter and painter, and providing for his wife and three children.

Burse assembled a combo with saxophone, bass, and drums for a lengthy recording session in 1939, and added a very rock-and-roll sounding piano when invited to record for Sam Phillips's fledgling record label in 1950. But by that time, he was at least twice the age of a typical recording star, and Phillips decided to focus on younger talent. Burse kept on doing his thing, recording with Will Shade for field researchers like Sam Charters and Alan Lomax, until his death in 1965.

Charlie Burse was laid to rest in Rose Hill Cemetery in Memphis, without a headstone. The Mt. Zion Memorial Fund is in touch with his daughter and grandchildren as well as the current owners of the cemetery, which was abandoned and unmaintained for years. Your donation will help install a memorial at the cemetery and organize a dedication ceremony, to give Burse some long overdue recognition as a singular talent and a key piece of American music history.

In the documentary American Epic (
Will Shade and Charlie Burse are featured performing in Memphis. 
Congratulations to all those who won a Grammy.  

The two enjoyed a brief resurgence toward the end of their lives due to their rediscovery in 1956 by Samuel Charters, who, later in 1963, recorded their final collaboration, Beale Street Mess-Around.  This video is from the 1958 television program, "Blues Street."

"One night in February 1928, Son [Brimmer] was walking along Beale Street, stopping to say hello to friends, and dropping in most of the bars to keep warm. There was another recording session scheduled with Victor the next morning, back in the studios in the McCall Building. In one of the barrooms, Yardbirds, a man was entertaining in the back room. He played a four-string tenor guitar, using the swinging rhythms of country dances, rather than the blues rhythms that the six-string guitar players like Son used. He was short and thin, dressed in loud clothes, laughing as he sang. His name was Charlie Burse, a country musician from Decatur, Alabama. Son liked his playing and his singing and he asked Burse if he wanted to record the next morning. Burse was willing; so Son took him home and they rehearsed all night, while Jennie slept in the other room. Burse gave the band an excitement and style that it had never had before. His laughter on the shouted vocal duets he and Shade did became one of the band's trademarks. They stayed together for the rest of the band's recording activity, making a tour of Chicago, and recording hundreds of songs for several record companies. Their music and their blues compositions had a raucous quality and a rich vein of country humor…"

from Samuel Charters, The Country Blues

Photo: Bill Pichette (May 2017)

Charlie Burse is buried in Rose Hill Cemetery in Memphis, TN. Our initial preliminary search of the burial ground was unsuccessful in locating the musician's grave. However, we did locate the grave of his mother, Emma Burse.

Born on May 20, 1874 to Lewis Hill in Alabama, Emma Burse had been living in Memphis at 589 Walnut Street and working as a “domestic” for about twelve years when she came down with a fatal case of pneumonia. A physician began attending to her on February 27, 1940, but she succumbed two days later at 12:43 p.m.  The undertaker at Southern Funeral Home handled her funeral arrangements and buried her remains in Rose Hill Cemetery on March 4, 1940.

Photo: Bill Pichette (May 2017)

The burials records for Rose Hill Cemetery were lost in 1979 when the owner of the burial ground was stabbed and killed. The authorities in Memphis later found the records inside a car submerged in the Mississippi River. Due to their inundation, the records were no longer legible.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Memphis Memorial - "I Am a Woman!"

by Bill Pichette

Every now and then I have to test myself. One hot day two years ago while waiting for the Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) bus – my preferred method of travel back then – I decided to walk the two miles back to my apartment. The late bus passed me about five minutes from my destination. Realizing I was able to deal with the heat at 53 years old and with some health issues, I began walking home regularly. Trying to mix up my exercise routine and having moved to a less convenient location for a bus ride to and from work, albeit closer, this year, I rode a bicycle for the first time in 22 years last month. Now that is my preferred method of getting to and from work.

Cornelia Crenshaw tested herself – and others – for decades. She was an activist during and after the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike, a voice for economic justice – the goal of the Poor People’s Campaign, the reason Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was here on that terrible day in April. One account has her in the middle of planning the marches – we know for sure she participated. Her real fight started after his murder and the settlement of the strike, however. In 1968, Memphis Light, Gas, & Water (MLGW) implemented the first solid waste fee. Ms. Crenshaw set to work. She tested MLGW by not paying the fee, protesting the city fee rolled into Memphians’ utility bills, calling it “retaliation” for settling the strike. Not paying the fee meant not paying her utility bill in the city’s eyes – her utilities were cut off. For over three years she went without water or electricity in her home on Vance, protesting the reason for the fee and its injustice to poor city dwellers – the majority of the poorest, then as now, being African-American. She is credited with MLGW policy to accept partial payments, allowing those unable to pay in full to keep their utilities. She was 53 when she started testing herself for the good of others.

Cornelia Crenshaw continued her fight, filing suit against the solid waste fee and utility rate increases for years. She protested at MLGW, City Hall, through her own and support of others’ political campaigns. She lost that old house on Vance and her car, which she said should be on display at the National Civil Rights Museum below Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel, as she loaned it to Dr. King during his visits. Looters broke into the house and stole her possessions. She lost her lawsuits and bids for political office, but won small victories that ripple even today for people struggling to pay high utility bills due to inefficient heating systems, poorly insulated houses, and months-long use of air conditioning. All of this fight wore her down. She lost her last struggle to an undisclosed illness in February 1994 and is buried at Rose Hill Cemetery, under a marker provided by The Minority Coalition of MLGW. I’m planning a special planting near that marker during our beautification project on September 8th to honor her strength and legacy.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Keeping the Blues Alive Award Nomination - Arlo Leach

On January 27, 2008, as many as five hundred people came out to the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago to raise money for a memorial to Will Shade, the good-time blues-rooted leader of the Memphis Jug Band, which was featured last year in the PBS television series American Epic. The benefit concert, which was headlined by Memphis blues harmonicist Charlie Musselwhite, was the initial effort by music teacher, musician, and dedicated researcher Arlo Leach. Having been inspired to memorialize Shade during a pilgrimage through the South to locate the graves of his blues heroes, Leach raised more than enough money to commission and install a headstone over Shade’s unmarked grave. The successful project was only the first of his many important and continuing memorialization efforts that make him a most deserving recipient of a Keeping the Blues Alive award.

R. L. Lawson described the blues as the counterculture to Jim Crow. The relationship of former Galva-Holstein, Iowa High School valedictorian Arlo Leach to the blues might also be viewed as a product of his own life and career that has run decidedly against the grain. A man who is never shy in public and not easily intimidated in debates with even the most aggressive intellectual, Leach earned bachelor’s degrees in English and Music at Grinnell College, worked as a professional musician in Madison, Wisconsin, and started a band in Chicago while teaching at the Old Town School of Music. His musical interests evolved over the years, growing from a fascination with 1930s folk music to a love of increasingly older and more obscure musical traditions. He had listened to the Beatles and Bob Dylan on the radio in high school, which led him to Harry Smith, the Carter Family, Uncle Dave Macon and eventually to the Memphis Jug Band. He performed and wrote original music for several years, but his recording of an album called Music of My Ancestors reoriented his creative focus towards research. He has since sought to revive the musical gems of an earlier, some might even say lost, era of recorded music.

In addition to studying and understanding different musical traditions, Leach also started to conduct research into several of his favorite, and most under-appreciated, pre-World War II blues musicians. For example, he did some digging and learned that Will Shade had been buried in a potter’s field, or just a bunch of unmarked graves maintained by authorities in Shelby County. He had visited other musician’s graves in the South, and he located many of their respectable grave markers, at which devotees paid their respects and sometimes left behind flowers or harmonicas. Nothing provided visitors to Shade’s grave, however, a chance to honor the local blues stalwart. Shade died a penniless widower on September 18, 1966. The absence of any proper memorialization “didn't seem fair,” Leach declared flatly, so he set his mind to attracting global support for the project in honor of the Memphis blues. He dedicated the memorial with ethnomusicologist David Evans, musician Andy Cohen, and dozens of his fellow admirers on May 3, 2008. 

Leach also played a significant role in the National Jug Band Jubilee’s campaign to mark the grave of jug band blues pioneer Earl McDonald in Louisville, Kentucky. The organization contracted southern Indiana sculptor David Ross Stephens to design and install the robust black granite headstone in Louisville Cemetery. The Kentucky Historical Society also unveiled a historical marker in honor of McDonald at Louisville’s Waterfront Park to kick-off the 5th annual National Jug band Jubilee in September 2009. Leach maintained that Will Shade and the Memphis Jug Band had been directly influenced by the musical innovations of McDonald.

Leach once again organized a benefit concert at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music on October 3, 2011, to erect memorials for transitional country blues artists Charlie and Joe McCoy, the last of whom wrote “When the Levee Breaks” in 1930 with his then-wife Memphis Minnie. Having played important roles in the development of African-American music from its rural roots to the foundations of rock and roll, their careers reflected the exodus of African-Americans out of the South and into more crowded, urban spaces. The Great Migration to the more industrial cities of the Midwest, however, often proved quite a daunting task for even more experienced musicians. Each of the McCoy brothers died in 1950, and Leach wanted to raise awareness of their music and install granite markers on each of their graves in Restvale Cemetery. Leach served as emcee of the benefit, which featured a host of local blues and roots artists, and he facilitated the dedication of two markers at an informal ceremony on May 22, 2011.

Leach has since moved out to Portland, Oregon, where he has been experiencing the joys of fatherhood. While he has been living out on the West Coast, he has not stopped supporting campaigns to honor the underrecognized artists who played such an important role in the development of American musical traditions. I was fortunate enough to receive his support for several campaigns of the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund, a private research and historic preservation group founded in 1989 and dedicated to marking abandoned graves and maintaining the cemeteries in which the most seminal blues artists, including Frank Stokes, James “Son” Thomas, Eugene Powell, Sam, Chatmon, Bo Carter, Charley Patton, Memphis Minnie, Fred McDowell, and many more, were laid to rest. 

Leach also initiated a campaign from long distance to honor another one of his Memphis musical heroes, Charlie Burse - The Ukulele Kid. Not knowing where the grave of Burse was located, Leach reached out to me personally and has proven an important asset throughout the research process, developing a relationship with the descendants of Charlie Burse, with whom he designed the grave marker for installation in January 2019. In addition, he conducted research about the life and music of Burse, composed a sharp example of music scholarship, and published his findings in The Frog Blues and Jazz Annual 6 (2018) out of London. Leach was also responsible for negotiating with officials at the Shelby County Cemetery to replace the damaged headstone of Will Shade that he originally had installed back in 2008. 
I am particularly proud of the work he has done in tandem with myself and Bill Pichette, the Memphis affiliate to the MZMF in charge of the Charlie Burse project. While collaboration is sometimes difficult for folks who exhibit a great deal of passion and conviction about the honorific process, Leach more than made up for the issues that come with a long-distance working relationship (via email) by exhibiting patience, understanding, and support in all steps of the process. Not only did he wholly embrace our motto that “research is respect,” but he realized the importance of working with the local community to clean up the cemetery grounds and supported the imperatives of the MZMF to establish a relationship with local church groups and ensure the graves of blues artists are kept clean. By demonstrating many of the same qualities that garnered MZMF founder Raymond “Skip” Henderson the Keeping the Blues Alive award in the early 1990s, Arlo Leach’s memorialization efforts situate him squarely inside the definition of a worthy recipient. Simply put, Arlo Leach’s life and work are the embodiment of the very spirit of the Keeping the Blues Alive award.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Story of the Undercover Blues Tourist in Clarksdale

By Bill Steigerwald - 2009

Republished with additional photos 
and captions by DeWayne Moore - 2018

In August 1948, the Post-Gazette published an explosive series by Ray Sprigle, "I Was a Negro in the South for 30 Days" -- the reality report of a white man, passing for black, in the Deep South. Bill Steigerwald revisits the path that Sprigle and his courageous collaborator, John Wesley Dobbs, took to chronicle the indignities and deprivations that black Americans still faced at the time.

The tomb erected by wealthy black Clarksdale dentist,
Dr. P.W. Hill in honor his wife Marjorie
and his unborn daughter in 1939.
OUTSIDE CLARKSDALE, Miss. -- The two great men whose ghosts I was chasing were midway through their dangerous undercover mission when they stopped here in May of 1948.

Talkative, well-spoken and a little too curious, they stood out as strangers in this corner of the Mississippi Delta, where cotton was king, the blues were born and raised and local Jim Crow laws kept the races separate but unequal.

If anyone looked closely, the strangers had a "big city" and maybe even "big trouble" written all over them.

But they had no problem passing themselves off for a week as just a couple of relatively prosperous old black guys from Pittsburgh and Atlanta who were tooling around the Delta's dirt roads and small towns in their dusty new 1947 Mercury.

It's a good thing the white folks who owned, operated and policed the Delta like a feudal kingdom never found out who their subversive visitors really were.

Click HERE to read Ray Sprigle's 21-part series.
His original article about visiting the 
cemetery is added to the bottom

If they had known the strangers were working on a secret journalism project that would soon shock the North, enrage the South and spark one of the country's earliest national discussions about ending their beloved system of racial segregation, they might have lynched them on the spot.

Sixty-one years later, as part of a four-day, 1,600-mile research swing from Atlanta to the Delta and back, I was following the trail of those same two great men.

As I had done for a Post-Gazette Sunday feature story on Aug. 2, 1998, I was going to some of the same places they visited, on their 3,400-mile trip to see for myself what they looked like or how much they had changed.

In 1998, I found a 76-year-old man who told me about meeting the daring codgers when they stayed overnight at his father's farmhouse in northwest Georgia.

But in May of this year, as I searched a badly overgrown old cemetery for a heartbreaking tomb the two men had visited, I wasn't expecting to be so lucky.

One of the great men, the proud owner of the 1947 Mercury, was John Wesley Dobbs, 66, a prominent black Republican political and social leader from Atlanta.

A powerful public speaker, a Yeats-and-Milton quoting neighbor and friend of the young Martin Luther King Jr., the grand master of Georgia's black Prince Hall Masons, the son of a freed slave, the grandfather of Atlanta's future black mayor Maynard Jackson -- Dobbs was already headed for the history books as an important activist and civil rights pioneer.

The resume of his light-skinned companion from Pittsburgh was also impressive. However, he was not actually a Negro named James Crawford, despite what "Mr. Crawford" himself and the fake identification papers in his wallet claimed.

"Crawford" wasn't even black. He was Pittsburgh's own Ray Sprigle, 61 -- a nationally famous, and very white, star reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. In 1938 he had won a Pulitzer Prize for proving that Hugo Black, the U.S. senator from Alabama who FDR picked for the Supreme Court in 1937, had been a loyal member of the KKK.

Now, with great secrecy, careful planning and the encouragement of the national office of the NAACP, Sprigle was pulling off the most ambitious and riskiest story of his impressive career.

Traveling through the Jim Crow South disguised as a Negro, Sprigle was seeing firsthand how 9 million blacks lived under Dixieland's infamous public-private system of legal, social, economic and cultural apartheid.

Later that summer, in August 1948, he would report to the world what he saw and experienced during the 30 days he "ate, slept, traveled and lived black."

The controversial, highly charged, 21-part syndicated newspaper series would appear in about 15 papers -- all north of the Mason-Dixon Line. In the Post-Gazette, the series was titled "I Was a Negro in the South for 30 Days." It was later repackaged as the 1949 book "In the Land of Jim Crow."

Making no pretense of objectivity or fairness or balance, Sprigle assailed the "iniquitous pattern of oppression and cruelty" that the South's mostly poor, rural and disenfranchised black population endured under a system he charged was patently immoral, inhuman and unconstitutional.

His withering first-person attack was widely read by the public and extensively commented upon by the chattering class of his day -- mainly radio commentators and newspaper columnists. It generated hundreds of letters -- 70 percent of them unfavorable.

It also quickly drew return fire from a lot of understandably defensive Southern newspaper editors, most of whom were quite fond of the "pattern of segregation" that used state and local Jim Crow laws to separate the races in public places like buses, bathrooms, ballparks and ocean beaches.

They did not appreciate "liberal" Yankees like Sprigle -- who in fact was a staunch conservative Republican -- parachuting into their turf and pointing out the oppression and cruelties of segregation that they countenanced, downplayed, excused or pretended didn't exist.

This film documents our visit to Shufordville Cemetery in 2017
(This film contains disturbing footage that may not sit well)

Passing as a black man was no small task for the lily-white German-American whose earlier front-page undercover stories for the Post-Gazette included pretending to be a coal miner and assuming the guise of a black market meat merchant for a month during World War II.

Thirteen years before John Howard Griffin published "Black Like Me," Sprigle tried but could not find chemicals to safely dye his skin. He ended up having to rely solely on a deep Florida suntan, but it worked.

With the respected and widely known Dobbs serving as guide and wheel-man, the pair put more than 3,400 hard, dusty, bigoted, pre-interstate, pre-Holiday Inn miles on Dobbs' 1947 Mercury. Dobbs -- whose identity was such a well-kept secret that his role was not made public until 1998 -- was crucial to the success of Sprigle's mission.

Using Dobbs' big house in Atlanta as their base of operations, and relying on Dobbs' deep knowledge of the South and his Masonic contacts in small towns, the team of subversive seniors raced over the dangerous back roads of Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.

When they arrived in the Delta in mid-May, they didn't hang out in the juke joints of Clarksdale listening to blues. They inspected the pitiful Negro schools that white people considered separate but equal. They sampled the opinions of local black leaders.

They observed the living conditions of the Delta's impoverished army of 500,000 black sharecroppers and day-workers, who, almost 100 years after the end of the Civil War, lived mostly in shacks and slaved from dawn to dusk behind one-mule plows on the sprawling cotton plantations.

Dr. P.W Hill was a member of the
Imperial Quartette of Clarksdale, Miss.
The Press Register, July 28, 1927.
Sprigle and Dobbs also went to Lyon on the outskirts of Clarksdale to pay their respects to two tragic victims of the South's coldhearted race laws.

The victims -- a mother and her unborn child -- were interred in an expensive crypt in Shufordville Historical Cemetery, which today sits on a dirt road across from the Lyon town sewage lagoon.

As Sprigle explained in his series, and without bothering to hide his rage, the tomb had been erected by a wealthy black Clarksdale dentist, Dr. P.W. Hill, to honor his wife Marjorie.

Both she and their unborn baby had died in 1939 on an operating table in a black Memphis hospital 78 miles away after Dr. Hill had to send them north by ambulance in the middle of the night.

Dr. Hill knew his wife needed an emergency Caesarian section to save her life. But like most Southern blacks of his age, he never considered sending her to Clarksdale's white-only hospital because he knew blacks were not admitted under any circumstances.

In May 1948, Dr. Hill proudly showed Sprigle and Dobbs his newly erected memorial, which Sprigle described as a "magnificent tomb of white Alabama marble" on the edge of the cotton fields.

Sixty-one years later, I set out to see Dr. Hill's "gleaming" tomb for myself. Unfortunately, after being led by two of Lyon's 418 residents over the railroad tracks to Shufordville Historical Cemetery, there was not a single tomb in sight.

I soon realized the tidy fenced-in graveyard with the big sign and the well-tended headstones was only the white half of the cemetery, which is still segregated after 159 years.

The black half -- where Dr. Hill's tomb would be -- was buried under the wavy tall grass, dense bushes and clumps of trees on the other side of the dirt road.

With only a few Bic pens, an official reporter's notebook and a digital camera to protect me from mosquitoes and ghosts, I pushed deeper and deeper into the thick savannah in search of a tomb, any tomb.

Lyon's old cemetery wasn't the first stop on my research trip, or my last. The next day I would meet Dobbs' youngest daughter June Dobbs Butts and see Dobbs' old house, where Sprigle stayed on weekends during his trip.

I had already gone to the site of the infamous Andersonville Prison south of Atlanta, where almost 13,000 Union prisoners of war died and are buried.

As Sprigle wrote, one evening he and Dobbs had the luxury of drinking from the same spring-fed public water fountain as white people did; it was federal land, so Jim Crow rules did not apply. Today water still bubbles from Providence Spring, but is no longer potable.

I also had stopped at the southwest Georgia crossroads village of Bluffton, where Sprigle railed about the shocking inadequacies of a "dilapidated, sagging old shack" that served as the separate elementary school for Clay County's black kids.

Dr. P.W. Hill's tomb in 2017
All memories and traces of that "school" were long gone, erased by the march of time and higher civilization. Could Dr. Hill's magnificent marble monument be gone, too? I thought, almost stepping on another ancient gravestone hiding in the tall grass and smashing a mosquito on my sweaty arm.

Just as I was about to give up, Dr. Hill's tomb emerged from a clump of dense bushes like a Mayan ruin. Far from gleaming, its white Alabama marble was soiled and discolored by nature and human neglect.

Its heavy metal door was off and leaning against an inside wall. An overturned vase of weathered plastic flowers lay at its front step. Inside were five marble vaults, including one carved with "Margie Hill, Born October 30, 1904; Died October 10, 1939."

Sprigle wrote that Dr. Hill regarded his tomb "only as his tribute to the ones he loved." But Sprigle, who by that time had had as much of Jim Crow's unequal domain as he could stomach, was not so naive.

He declared Dr. Hill's tomb "a monument to the cold-blooded cruelty of the white man; to the brutal mandate of a white world that black men and women must die rather than be permitted to defile a cot or an operating table in a white hospital with their black skins."

I have no idea what Dr. Hill's broken tomb would symbolize to Sprigle or Dobbs today, but they would be most dismayed at the lack of civility in public discourse as well as the societal abandonment of the goal of the beloved community.  Sadly, a visit to the tomb of Dr. Hill suggests that we have come only a very short distance despite so much time and energy having been exhausted in hopes of realizing the dream of equality.  The erection of a fence in the 1980s to divide the black and white sections of the graveyard continues to impede efforts of a more unified preservation vision.

A Marble Monument To Cruelty
By Ray Sprigle - 1948

In this little, straggling Negro cemetery, its graves weed-grown, its headstones leaning drunkenly, stands a magnificent sarcophagus of white Alabama marble. It is an astonishing thing to find here on the edge of this Mississippi Delta town of Clarksdale. Quite likely there’s nothing like it all up and down the Delta in either white or Negro cemetery.

Within it lie the bodies of a dark woman and her baby, both dead in the hour of the baby’s birth. Proudly, Dr. P. W. Hill, wealthy Negro dentist, shows us through this gleaming mausoleum where his wife and baby lie and where someday he too will rest.

In all simplicity, he regards it only as his tribute to the ones he loved.

Monument to Cruelty

But this beautiful tomb out here on the edge of the cotton fields is a monument to the cold-blooded cruelty of the white man; to the brutal mandate of a white world that black men and women must die rather than be permitted to defile a cot or an operating table in a white hospital with their black skins.

Marjorie Hill and her husband had planned to have their baby at home. Mrs. Hill was strong and active and in perfect health.

The competent Negro physicians in attendance foresaw no complications or difficulties. Her approach to motherhood was wholly normal until just a few hours before another little dark soul was due in this white world. Then something went tragically wrong. Only a Caesarian section could save his wife and baby, Dr. Hill was told by the doctors.

Clarksdale boasts of a small but adequate hospital. But it is sacred to white patients. Dr. Hill didn’t even seek admission for his wife and unborn baby. Just before midnight he put them into an ambulance and started a mad drive north to Memphis and its Negro hospital, 78 miles away, in a desperate race with death. Death won. Mother and new-born baby both died on the operating table just before dawn.

Has Learned Big Lesson

The Clarksdale Press RegisterSep 5, 1972.
Dr. Hill, small,. spare, scholarly, reserved, is not, embittered. He has learned his lesson well. He is a black man in a white world.

"But, Doctor," I insisted, "you didn’t even try. You didn’t even ask Clarksdale Hospital authorities to admit your wife."

Both Dr. Clark and my companion broke in before I had finished:

"In the South," they told me, "when you’re black you don’t try to fight the pattern. Hospitals are for white people. White people do not admit black folk to their hospitals. Black folk do not even ask for admission. They just die."

But I wasn’t satisfied. Back home, and a white man myself again, I decided that here was one barbarity charged to my race that I’d disprove.

I wired Miss Louise Francis, director of Clarksdale Hospital. Western Union reported back that the wire had been delivered to her personally.

"Clarksdale Negroes insist that no Negroes are admitted to Clarksdale Hospital even in an emergency such as auto accidents, Caesarians. Will you wire me collect if Negroes would be admitted under any circumstances?"

No Reply to Telegram

I have yet to receive a reply.

Twelve days later I sent Miss Francis a registered letter referring to my telegram:

"Would you then be good enough to let me know if under any circumstances such as an automobile accident in front of the hospital or an immediate Caesarian, would a Negro ever be admitted to your hospital?"

I hold a postal receipt for that registered letter but there has been no reply. Which seems to establish the record and prove that Dr. Hill made no mistake when he didn’t bother to seek admission for his wife even on the threshold of death.

The segregated black section of Shufordville Cemetery also contains the graves of blues fiddler Henry "Son" Simms, who recorded with Muddy Waters and Charley Patton. Moreover, local blues enthusiasts placed a marker for harmonicist One-Armed John Wrencher in the cemetery in 2014.

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